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France: Strategy and Tactics against Labour Code "Reform"

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As this journal goes to press, France’s President, Francois Hollande, and his government under Prime Minister Manuel Valls have been shaken by months of workers’ strikes and demonstrations, but they have not yet capitulated or fallen. A new focus for mobilisation has been called for June 14 by the cross-union Intersyndicale, which coordinates the CGT, FO, Solidaires, and four other trade union and youth federations.

Missing is the CFDT, largest of the three major union federations, whose leaders have shamefully scabbed on the struggle. Expanding the strike movement Paris will be the stage for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers expected to march against the reform of the labour code on the day the upper house, the Senate, is due to vote it into law. If expectations are met, the preceding eight national days of action will be easily surpassed; a massive demonstration will destroy what shreds of credibility the government has left. At times all eight oil refineries have been on strike, along with employees in the nuclear power plants and port workers.

Newspaper printing and distribution, petrol stations, roads, docks and airports have all been subjected to the exercise of working class power. Workers on the state railway company, SNCF, have been on indefinite strike from May 31, on June 2, stoppages hit the Paris Metro and buses. The region’s airport workers struck on June 3 to 5. So although levels of participation in the days of action in May remained static, the escalation of the strike wave in the second half of the month is likely to be reflected in a major turnout in Paris. Many strikes have combined the general call for the repeal of the labour reform with demands specific to their own workplace or employer. This is partly motivated by the government’s ability to ban explicitly political strikes (although this has not been enforced since 1948) but is mainly driven by workers taking advantage of a powerful movement to raise a multitude of grievances that have built up in recent years.

On the defensive

The Socialist Party government is on the back foot and, like all governments in such a situation, it has turned to state repression to carry through what it could not get through debate in parliament. Well armed as it is with the state of emergency declared after November’s terrorist attacks, repeatedly renewed, the government has unleashed the riot police on demonstrations and workers’ pickets. Hundreds of activists have been arrested, and violent clashes have left dozens with serious injuries at the hands of the police.

Nevertheless, it is clear that so far, massive violence has proved insufficient to stem the forward dynamic of the movement. More than two-thirds of the population oppose the “labour market reform” and support the strikers. People recognise that the Loi El Khomri is a strategic attack against all workers, a French version of the “Agenda 2010” launched by Germany’s social democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003. The rightly cherished 35-hour week would de facto be abolished and overtime pay would be calculated over a three year period. More dangerously, article 2 of the new law overturns the hierarchy of norms. Until now the Code du Travail set down the mandatory labour regulations which applied universally; agreements in branches of industry or workplaces could only extend its protections, not remove them. If the new reforms are implemented, local agreements would allow workers to ‘voluntarily’ surrender the rights ‘guaranteed’ in the Code du Travail. Despite the State of Emergency, the youth movement Nuit Debout and most trade unions have been mobilising since early March. The great exception has been the CFDT, whose leader Laurent Berger justified his union’s strike-breaking line on the basis that the repeal of the labour code reform would be “a blow against workers”. He this claims because the law does not shift the balance of forces between bosses and workers, but represents just a “new division of competencies”.

So far, Berger and his friends have failed to seriously disrupt the movement, but the CFDT’s actions will encourage the government to try to divide the rest of the union movement. MeanwhileHollande and his government have given even more attention to efforts to divide the population as a whole from the unions. Pierre Gattaz, leader of the bosses union, Medef, denounced the CGT as terrorists, and a right wing journalist was able to write “France has two enemies, Daesh [Islamic State] and the CGT”. On May 18, around 1,000 police officers demonstrated in Paris “against hatred of the police”. This was principally directed against the youth (which is why it assembled in Place de la République - the rallying space of Nuit Debout) but also against “hooligans” in the trade unions. Although this demonstration was not particularly strong, it is indicative of the situation that the forces of extreme reaction begin to organise against the labour and youth movement. The presence of leading members of the Front National shows where it really stands - not on the side of workers, despite it’s pro-[French] worker rhetoric - but on the side of the bosses and the police.

Whilst Hollande and Valls hope that time and repression will exhaust the movement, they have got their hands full trying to ensure their own camp doesn’t fall apart first. So many Socialist Party MPs refused to vote for the reform that Valls resorted to article 49.3 of the constitution which allows laws to be decreed without a parliamentary vote. But this confrontation is only postponed. The government tried with only limited success to pull individual sectors of the working class out of the dispute by offering to exempt them from the reforms. In fact the main consequence of this strategy has been to alarm the ruling class into calling for “hard action” against the “privileges” of the workers, pointing out that Hollande and his government are near the end of their term and need to be replaced by a more reliable force as quickly as possible.

The ruling class are preparing their strategy and choosing the leaders who will press it most ruthlessly; the working class would be well advised to do the same. Hollande won’t give in after one demonstration - no matter how big. His government is gambling on the Euro Football competition and summer holidays demobilising the movement’s momentum. So as June 14 approaches, the question of the political strategy and perspective of how the fight against the “labour reform” can be won becomes even more pressing.

While the strike movement is becoming stronger, “Nuit Debout” has reached its limits. It is now just a shadow of itself, consisting of a declining group of activists with weak connections to the lycées (high schools) and virtually none with the banlieues - the outer suburbs with a high proportion of families of North African origin. From the beginning, it had no general political strategy and tactics, and refused to build an organisation to fight for political demands. The unions lead the fight From the beginning of the movement against the labour law, its leadership was taken by the unions, by the intersyndicale and in particular by the CGT. This means the future of the movement is intimately connected with the political strategy of its leadership and its control over the strike movement.

Under such conditions the movement made slow progress for several months, hampered by the trade union leaders’ unwillingness to escalate the confrontation and risk “losing control” of the strikes. The government is pinned between the intransigence of the bosses on one hand and the working class organisations on the other. Such a situation demands bringing the fight to a finish - a political general strike, building on present high levels popular support. If the unions do not escalate the struggle in this way, i.e. with a clear goal of a decisive victory, the different striking sectors could lose heart public and the public loses patience with the intermittent disruptions. It is quite possible that the government will back down simply faced with a deadly (serious) threat of a general strike, especially if it mobilized through the Assemblés generales (AGs) and local coordinations of delegates from the unions, the youth etc. Especially, too, if defense organisations are recruited by all these bodies to counter the attacks of the police or the CRS. For the government, the bosses and the union leaders know full well that an all-out general strike poses the issue of power between the state and the workers’ organisations.

Since the logic of the struggle gives rise to rival and counterposed powers, and one must eventually assert its control over the other, it poses the necessity and the possibility of replacing Hollande and Valls with a workers’ government. It is this objective dynamic within the struggle that terrifies all the trade union leaders, left-wing parties and organisations. It is perfectly understandable why the “left wing” of the Socialist Party refuses to go beyond vague expressions of “solidarity” with the workers and the youth. But these reformists will not succeed in maintaining their irreconcilable loyalty to the workers and the government indefinitely.

Meanwhile the more militant political representatives of the working class - the Front de Gauche and the Parti communiste française (PCF) leave the leadership of the movement entirely to the trade unions. Indeed labour disputes in France are characterised by the fact that socialist, Communist and even Trotskyist organisations restrict themselves to support, solidarity and encouragement. The question of strategy and a critique of the leadership is only raised afterwards, in the post mortem of a dispute, when it impossible to change the outcome. Political and trade union struggle This behaviour has become something of a political principle for reformists and revolutionaries alike in France, dating back to the 1906 Charter of Amiens which stated that the unions conduct their struggle “in complete independence from political parties and from the state”. An idea originating with the anarcho-syndicalist founders of the CGT Victor Griffuelhes and Émile Pouget, it was accepted by the PCF after World War One. The CGT has long ceased to be a revolutionary syndicalist body, though it still pays lip services to its traditions.

This idea has become an almost irrefutable dogma for the French left. For the reformists, it is no great problem, because it ultimately reproduces the division of labor between the party and trade unions observable in practice in most countries. Unions are responsible for labour issues and strikes, while the party organises solidarity from the sidelines in the hope - as is the case with the PCF and FdG - that strikes will improve their future electoral prospects. Leaving political responsibility to the unions helps shield the party from the consequences in case of defeat. The unions meanwhile, try to lead a political class struggle, as if it were a purely trade union struggle, avoiding the question of the political power. Currently, we can observe that the intensification of the struggle is pushing the more militant trade unionists to begin to raise the question of a general strike – itself of course the major weapon for the revolutionary syndicalists.

The demand for a general strike is increasingly visible on demonstrations. But there is no political organisation, let alone party, which has taken up this question, putting it at the centre of its agitation and propaganda, connecting its organisation and use for the immediate struggle with its potential to open up the road for more fundamental changes. The union leaders are trying to keep control of the movement while, to a certain extent, giving a free hand to the rank and file. In many workplaces, general assemblies decide whether to continue the fight or not. This can be positive because it creates a space for open discussion and can promote the development of the movement. But all decisions about national actions are taken by the bureaucratic apparatus. The agreement to put off holding any more country-wide days of action until June 14 means that the activists remain isolated in their factory, under pressure from their bosses or material circumstances to return to work. Such actions by the union bureaucracy have been seen time and again towards the end of major social movements and strike waves. The trade union bureaucracy, having avoided the generalisation of the action, pushes the responsibility for ending the movement onto the workers themselves. The general strike, the action most of bureaucrats fear like the plague, moves further and further away, finally becoming “unrealistic”.

Should the government come up with an acceptable compromise offer however, it will be up to the trade union leaders, more precisely the leadership of the CGT, to decide whether or not they are acceptable. Despite the general assemblies in the workplaces, the bureaucracy, free from all democratic control by the rank and file, decides on the strategy of the struggle and which sectors will strike and for how long. Unfortunately, the French left usually satisfies itself with tailing what the more radical part of the striking workers demand. This is not surprising for left trade unionists, anarchists and autonomists, as it logically follows from their (incorrect) theoretical conception. In effect it is spontaneism – a belief that a revolutionary (or radical) consciousness of the workers can only develop in the (economic) struggle itself. Trying to suggest (or “impose” as they refer to it) alternative tactics, forms of organisation or actions would be “paternalism” or “dictating”. Thus they take up a position at the tail of the militant vanguard.

The radical left

The “Trotskyist” left is not much more advanced than this: the Lambertists (POI) are deeply mired in the bureaucracy of FO, with hardly any visible public profile they have adapted totally to the trade union bureaucracy. Lutte ouvrière (LO) remains content to celebrate the workers’ actions, happy and contented that that they are fighting. They offer no perspective for how to extend and connect the struggles of the unions with the youth. Nobody calls for the creation of strike committees elected by the general assemblies, local delegate-based councils of action, (coordinations), nor the general strike. Criticisms of the bureaucracy, or warnings against it, are hardly to be heard. This is even more strange when appeals for the general strike are raised by the rank and file, by union activists (most notably the petition Bloquons tout! [Blockade everything]), and even by Olivier Besancenot (speaking for himself rather than a spokesperson of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste - NPA). Recently, the CGT’s general secretary, Philippe Martinez, had to defend himself for not raising it; he explained that it is not as simple as pressing a button, which is certainly true, but ignores the fact that creating the conditions for a general strike would be much easier if he openly called for it. The NPA, still France’s largest far left group, certainly thinks more strategically. Nevertheless the official position of the NPA avoids the general strike slogan and the question of political coordination and centralisation of the struggles and the need for self-defence committees.

But above all it seems that there is no specific intervention of the NPA as a whole, no common slogans, no policy proposed to the activists of the organisation to unify their work. This reflects the pitiful political situation of the organisation, which has suffered splits and severe losses of members in recent years and is today almost paralysed by internal factional struggles. The NPA’s left wing (e.g. the Courant communiste revolutionaries du NPA (CCR) linked to Fracción Trotskista (FT)) has a better position arguing for the “generalisation” of the strike, on the verge of the general strike slogan.

However they do not raise the general strike slogan as a call on the existing leadership, but see generalisation of the AGs and “self-management” as a precondition. Ultimately they see a general strike as the result of a spontaneous development. Moreover the FT does not address at all the question of power that would inevitably be posed in the event of a successful general strike. This self-restraint is a feature of the FT’s fear that placing demands on the existing bureaucratic leadership sows illusions in them. In the first weeks of the movement they (wrongly) claimed that Nuit Debout could become the point of centralisation; in recent declarations however they consider the CGT as the only opposition to the government.


The League for the Fifth International believes it is not simply a task but the responsibility of revolutionaries to consider the issues of strategy and tactics in a major class and political struggle (against a government, not simply an employer or even all the employers as represented by the Medef). It is our duty to communicate our suggestions to the fighting vanguard by means of propaganda and agitation. This of course is a dialogue with the militants not a matter of “imposing” anything, or violating the democracy of the workers’ own organisations.

Today the central demand in the fight against the labour law should be: ‘a general strike to force the total abandonment or repeal of the Labor Law. But the unions ought to expose the government’s lie that they need these laws in order to encourage employers to take on young workers. The movement therefore needs to demand permanent jobs at full union agreed pay rates for all the unemployed. The days of action and mobilisation should be used to prepare general strike: General assemblies in the factories to raise this demand on the trade union leaders Election of strike and action committees and their coordination at a local, regional and national level Lift the state of emergency Self defense against provocateurs and the attacks of the police It is quite possible the serious threat of a general strike could force Hollande and Valls into a retreat. That alone would be a major victory for the working class.

Nevertheless they or a future right wing president and government would almost certainly return to the attack. On the other hand, a general strike in France would pose the question of power, not simply through forcing the withdrawal of the labour law reform but through the need for workers’ to organise their own protection against police, provocations and the army. A general strike could only succeed if organs of self-defence are created to defend it against the state’s repression. This spread of working class democracy over whole areas of the economy, combined with physical defence of these could form the basis for a workers’ government to emerge from a victorious conflict with the ruling class’ state apparatus.

Developments in France are already being closely watched beyond its borders. In addition to its own “internal” reserves, the French government has powerful allies among the rulers in Europe, who will do everything in their power to prevent an example being set for their own exploited and oppressed workers, enduring endless austerity. Therefore it is no exaggeration to say that a decisive victory for the French working class would create a completely new situation in Europe. A victory in France will encourage workers across Europe to take up the fight against anti-worker laws and the plague of austerity. It would turn the tide against the growing forces of right wing populism and anti-refugee racism.

It is therefore an urgent task to fight for the European working class and youth to become even more powerful allies of the French movement.