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France: workers and youth mobilise against the “Socialist” government

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One year after the 12 deaths resulting from the terrorist attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and in the fifth month of the state of emergency imposed after130 died in the November attacks in Paris, the French government was convinced that it could accelerate the tempo of its neoliberal economic reforms with little risk of resistance. Its imperialist interventions in Syria and Africa are proceeding without any significant domestic opposition. The same is true for the state of emergency itself as well as the change to the Constitution, which will allow bi-national citizens to be stripped of their French citizenship, the repression of refugees in Calais and several other “reforms” that will restrict workers' rights.

However, the most recent reform, named after the new Labour Minister, Myriam El Khomri, has triggered serious resistance throughout the country. An online petition against it received more than one million signatures in a few weeks and the first day of action against it by workers and youth, on March 9, was a success.

This “reform” is actually a general attack against all workers. After a media campaign lasting for almost a year, and attempts to prove that the current labour laws, the Code du Travail, are too rigid for the hard pressed employers, this project represents a massive deregulation of this sector. Emmanuel Macron, the neoliberal Economy Minister, declares that the 35 hour week must be abolished. Payment for working beyond 35 hours per week would also be slashed and such working time computed over a three-year period. The obligatory period of 11 hours of rest every 24 hours could be split over several days.

In many cases, the boss will be able to decide working times and vacation rights unilaterally. In the case of firms facing “economic difficulties”, firing workers would be made much easier, and the compensation for illegal sackings would be capped at 11 months' salary. In short, even though the bosses already have enormous power within the workplace, and use it, too, the message is that the Labour Code rules prevent them doing what is necessary to get the economy moving.

Similar attacks have been conducted all over Europe, the most recent being the Italian “Jobs Act” of premier Matteo Renzi. All of them have been motivated with the ridiculous argument that if only the bosses could sack their workers more easily, and if their workers were made to work longer with fewer rights and lower wages, then unemployment would magically decrease.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the workers and the youth are resisting this latest attack. Many of them voted for Hollande in 2012, when he promised that his enemy was the power of Finance. They were unable to mount an opposition movement when, instead, he decided to increase VAT, give €40 billion to the bosses and continued the attacks against the public services, most notably the schools and the hospitals. This latest reform, however, is clearly one too much.

It comes at a time when workers realise that none of the previous reforms have reduced the unemployment rate or improved working conditions. As a result, François Hollande has again plunged in the opinion polls, reversing a brief recovery after the Paris killings and the wave of patriotic fervour and national unity that followed them.

This discrediting of the government was already clear in the appalling score of Socialist Party in the November 2015 regional elections, even though, unfortunately, many voters decided to vote for the Front National, FN, as a way of expressing their anger. Today, this attack on the Labour Code comes only one year before the presidential elections, and various political leaders are fully aware of this.

The new leader of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, intends to use the movement to create unity instead of division inside his own organisation, presenting himself as a radical left leader in order to prepare his own reelection at the CGT congress in April.

The Front de Gauche, the electoral front of the Communist Party, PCF, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Party, Parti de Gauche, is virtually dead. Recently, Mélenchon declared his own intention to stand as a candidate in the presidential election, independently of any party. Both the PCF’s almost unknown leader, Pierre Laurent, and Mélenchon were present at the Paris demonstration, each wanting to pose as the political leader of the “left of the left”, giving the movement against the government’s reforms the opportunity to express itself in the ballot.

Another recent development comes from within the PS itself. Its First Secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, has pleaded for a redrafting of the reform. Jack Lang, a minister under Mitterrand, has denounced what he calls a “collective suicide” of PS. The historical PS leader, Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille, has signed an appeal in the newspaper Le Monde that has been termed “both a vitriolic and a heavy weapon attack” against François Hollande and Manuel Valls. Starting with “Enough is enough”, it denounces “a lasting weakening of France, and of the direction of the left”. With this new reform, “the whole body of social relations in our country is destroyed. Not this, not us, not the left”. Strangely enough, it is barely six months since Aubry signed an orientation document for the PS congress together with PM Manuel Valls!

Despite all this opportunism, the turn to the left of a fraction of PS leaders means that the lycée and student unions UNL, FIDL and UNEF, despite being thoroughly controlled by PS bureaucrats, have also joined in the mobilisation, instead of applying the brakes and supporting the government. In Paris, 30 lycées were mobilised in various forms on March 9, and about one hundred all over the country. Similarly, the students are preparing for a big movement. Youth have been almost absent from the streets in the last four years but the reasons for anger abound, including racism, police violence, precarité and unemployment. This discontent was palpable in the recent demonstrations.

Certainly, Valls is not the first PM in France who has had to face an opposition from the workers and the youth, witness the mass movements against Chirac in 1986 or Balladur in 1994. But the memory of the gigantic movement against CPE in 2006, ten years ago, which culminated in defeat for Chirac and his PM, Dominique de Villepin, is still quite vivid.

The opposition to the El Khomri reform has started with a successful day of demonstrations and strikes, with more than 400,000 marching throughout the country. It could, and should, develop into a massive movement against all the attacks by Hollande, including the state of emergency. However, workers and youth, while profiting from the disarray of the PS and the opportunities it creates, must not rely at all on the newfound “friends” who are rediscovering their left character after years of supporting this government. They must also distrust “radical” leaders like Mélenchon or the PCF bureaucrats, who were unable to build any effective resistance against the neo-liberal PS and are only trying to gather some electoral credibility. None of them has any serious intention of attacking the heart of all oppression and social regression, the capitalist system.

To establish control over their own movement, workers and young people need to build their own general assemblies (AGs) and factory committees and draw up their own demands, not rely on those formulated by trade union or reformist leaders. To win, the strategy of relying on separate, single days of action has been proved ineffective in the past. Already, UNEF has called for another day of action on March 17, while the CGT and other unions have chosen March 31.

Certainly, an all out indefinite general strike remains difficult to achieve but it is the only way to take the movement out of the hands of bureaucrats and to force the government to retreat. Today, we have to fight for escalation in that direction, with bigger and more frequent actions. Even more important, this movement could marginalise the FN and its nationalist and racist slogans. By once again putting class struggle and workers' demands at the centre of political life, it would open up an alternative for the working class based on its own actions, and not a passive support for grossly opportunistic leaders, preparing tomorrow’s betrayals.

Down with the El Khomri reform, no amendments, for a total withdrawal of the project!

Down with the state of emergency ! End all the police brutality against Muslims and activists!

Not a Euro, not a person, for the army and its imperialist interventions in Africa and the Middle East!

Open the borders to the migrants and the refugees, no to the forced dismantling of the Calais camp and the dispersal of the refugees!