Monday, April 10, 2006
VICTORY FOR POPULAR REVOLT IN FRANCE: NEWS AND ANALYSIS
President Jacques Chirac today put aside the employment law that provoked mass protests and strikes, in the face of the pressure of students and trade unions. Weeks of demonstrations and strikes paralyzed the universities, disrupted road, railroad and air transport and frustrated the government attempt to reform the labor laws.
Alain Olive, general secretary of the UNSA trade union, stated that after more than two weeks of intense mobilization, the 12 labor organization groups, the universities and secondary students have won a great victory.
The first news article below is from AFP. The second, an analysis piece, is from the anarchist web site Anarkismo. The third, an earlier analysis, is from the Marxist site In Defense of Marxism.
CHIRAC SCRAPS CONTESTED YOUTH JOBS PLAN
PARIS, April 10, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac scrapped his government's hotly contested youth jobs scheme Monday, handing a major victory to unions and students after one of the country's biggest political crises in decades.
Chirac announced after a high-level meeting that the youth contract, which would have made it easier to fire young workers, would be "replaced" with new measures to help disadvantaged young people into work.
It was hailed as a major victory by French union leaders, who had mobilised millions of people in a sometimes violent two-month street campaign against a measure they said only increased job insecurity.
The decision is a serious blow to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who had championed the scheme as a cornerstone of efforts to fight unemployment.
Villepin -- whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, his chances for next year's presidential election all but destroyed -- confirmed the decision in a brief televised address.
"The necessary conditions of trust and serenity were not present, either among young people or businesses, to allow the implementation of the First Employment Contract (CPE)," Villepin said.
He said he had wanted to "act fast" against youth unemployment, which runs at 22 percent in France, by proposing a strong and viable reform.
"It was not understood by everyone, and I regret that," he added.
Unions and student leaders, who had set the government a deadline of April 17 -- Easter Monday -- to withdraw the CPE, were expected to declare an end to their protest movement following a meeting later Monday.
France's biggest union, the CGT, proclaimed "success", while the CFDT's Francois Chereque said: "The goal of the CPE's withdrawal has been achieved."
Student leader Bruno Juillard said Chirac's announcement was "a decisive victory", but urged protestors to "keep up the pressure" until parliament votes on the legislation superseding the CPE.
Another student leader called however for an end to blockades that continued to disrupt almost half of France's 84 universities.
Villepin's CPE, which would have allowed employers to fire workers aged under 26 without reason during the first two years, was designed as a tool against youth unemployment.
Under legislation drawn up by the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), it is to be replaced with a package of measures helping "young people in difficulty" into work, notably via state subsidies to employers.
The new measures, to be submitted to parliament later Monday and put to a vote in the coming days, will cost a total of 450 million euros (550 million dollars) for the period 2006-2007.
Within the centre-right, the debacle has brought about a power shift that is expected to weigh on next year's presidential election.
Chirac, 73, and Villepin, 52, his friend and ally, have both seen their approval ratings plunge to 25 percent, and 85 percent of the public believe they have emerged weakened.
While Villepin was criticised as stubborn and imperious for his handling of the reform, Chirac was ridiculed for a determination to protect Villepin -- on whom commentators say he is increasingly dependent -- at all costs.
In contrast, more than half of the public believed that Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, who as head of the UMP took a lead role in negotiating a way out of the crisis, has come out stronger from.
Part of a broader law on equal opportunities, the CPE was drawn up in response to the riots that gripped poor French suburbs last November, which were largely blamed on unemployment.
But it provoked a massive backlash, with students and unions accusing Villepin of trampling on hard-won labour rights and discriminating against young people.
Millions of people joined in street protests, which repeatedly descended into violence and vandalism, against a measure seen as the start of an assault on French job protection laws.
Analysis of the Victory in France
by Jonas Bals - www.frihetlig.org Monday, Apr 10 2006, 3:42pm
france / belgium / luxemburg / workplace struggles / opinion/analysis
– its Thatcher moment defied?
In last week’s edition of the British magazine The Economist, much attention was paid to the movement in France. The liberalist paper was deeply concerned whether the French ruling class would bow for the street protests and thereby duck «its ‘Thatcher moment’» or not – and thereby escape «the point when the country might have tested the union-led resistance and imposed liberal economics on a fearful public.» Today, it became clear that they have.
Although it remains to be seen how the French government will try to modify its defeat, the victory is as clear as it can get. But how significant is this victory, however partial it may turn out to be once the ‘social dialogue’ is re-established? The Economist can give us a hint, as they have been among the most important intellectual infantrists in the neo-liberal assault on Europe’s entrenched working classes. Their 1st of April edition, which dealt extensively with the situation in France, included a special report on how ‘France faces the future.’ In an extended editorial, titled after Charles Dicken’s famous account of the French revolution, his novel A tale of two cities, the magazine explains the ongoing turmoil as the result of a divided society. On the one hand, it says, France is future-oriented, business friendly, «dynamic and highly trained» – a fact reflected in the soaring profits of the top 40 companies, which rose by 50 % from 2004 to 2005. And on the other: The backward-looking, static and reality-denying part of France, the «1m-3m people that took to the streets» and the thousands of «troublemakers» that have opposed the government’s labour market reforms.
It is this scared and old-fashioned part of French society that the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, so desperately wanted to help, The Economist explains. By introducing the law of the first job contract, the CPE, he tried by way of decree «to combat mass unemployment in France, which touches 23 % of young people, and one in two of those living on the rough housing projects.» Strange enough, his generosity was not appreciated by the ungrateful French protestors, who showed a complete lack of concern both for themselves and the suburban proletariat the government claimed it was fighting for. And now, with today’s victory, they have presumably denied the reality principle and fought a reform that would have brought France back on track. The track laid out by the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions of the 80’s, that is, which The Economist promoted with much eager in its time. Not as a result of ‘ideology,’ of course, but by their capability to grasp the Real, and understand in what direction the Reason of history was heading.
But, as The Economist laments, the whole affair in France developed into a «pre-emptive protectionist strike,» which, if it succeeded – as it now indeed has – would undermine «the need for France to face up to, and accept, global capitalism.» Only in France’s business schools, which were left untouched by the protests, sit-ins and occupations, could the Prime Minister find a species of students more gifted than the average high-school or university ‘denying conservative’: Only «students at such places, taught the latest in finance and economics, understand the price France will pay if it refuses to change,» The Economist complained – in a revolution-ridden country which «has never been properly déMarxisé.»
Which brings us back to the impact of this victory. With today’s withdrawal of the CPE, France has at least not been ‘de-marxised’ – meaning, if translated from the language of political economy to ordinary English, that the French working class has not been beaten into submission and defeat, as the British miners and printers once were. The movement against the CPE proved that struggle is wortwile – and that the ‘reality’ represented by neo-liberal capitalism can be defeated. But, we should all take care to remember, neither The Economist or the ruling class whose views it expresses, will give up.
«A war may be neeeded to bring the two [Frances] together, but this is not the right battle,» it warned its readers – because the reforms were not «genuinely radical,» as opposed to the «rupture with France’s social model» preached by de Villepin’s colleague and rival for next year’s presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy. Again, in plain English: Let the next election run its course, and the politicians pretend. Then, when the obligatory lip service has been paid to parliamentary democracy, launch the assault on the workers and students – but fight them hard, so they never get back up on their feet! And fight them more intelligently, as the government did last August, when it introduced its CNE-law in the middle of the summer holiday.
The student-dominated movement that won its victory today, mobilised its forces only against aspects of what is; as such, its impact should not be over-rated by self-confessed revolutionaries. The only way it could have been generalised, would have been from the bottom and from without, outside the reach of the bureaucracies of the official unions and student organisations. That, however, was not what was at the agenda. The world that was being fought for, from February to April, was not the ‘another world’ we claim is possible, beyond wage slavery and the state. But it was a fight against the ‘other world’ they try to dictate on us, a world that is always described with the quasi-objective language of political-economic realism – and in this, we succeeded.
The British miners’ historic defeat has, since 1985, been interpreted as inevitable – and their fight been portrayed as a fight against history and necessity. But they only were in so far as we see their struggle as isolated to the question of coal in the British economy. Not if seen as something more than a desperate defense of their own turf, as an attempt to point beyond what-is, and the logic of capitalist development – towards a world where our choices would be wider than ‘Submission and Slavery, or Unemployment and Despair.’
Capitalism can’t exist without most of us suffering its consequences. In that respect, there is a certain reality to the opposed interests of French students and the banlieu youth, which the government will continue to try and pit against each other. Common interests doesn’t exist in a capitalist world: It is only when viewed from the point of a different world, that we can speak of our interests being mutually dependent, – our interests in having both dignity and safety, freedom and a guarantee that tomorrow won’t be a struggle for survival.
The main unions in France are now busy finding solutions to the crisis of ‘French society’; a crisis which is both real and experienced as such. What they call ‘professional social security’ is, in large part, inspired by a model commonly referred to as the ‘Danish flexicurity model’ – combining unemployment insurance schemes and a highly flexible, hire-and-fire labour market. This is also the banner under which the EU Commision is drafting its proposals for a ‘more flexible, more competitive Europe.’ All the wrongs and inequalities of this system notwithstanding – myself living in the daily reality of its logic – it is also worth reminding that this system is a result of class struggle and class compromises, not a plan designed from above. It relies on a highly unionised working class, and one of the world’s highest tax levels. Without these factors included, all that would remain is flexibility – not security. And no-one should be convinced that this is a price the ruling class of Europe would be willing to pay for a more elastic work force – never. What they want is the ‘rupture’ Sarkozy has talked of, and which Thatcher once represented. We have won today, but will have to fight them again tomorrow.
French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts
By Mikael Duthu
Thursday, 16 March 2006
Just months after the revolt of the youth on the estates, France finds itself in the middle a second large-scale revolt of the youth. In the autumn of last year we saw the uprising of disenfranchised youth of the estates in the cities of France against unemployment, low wages, the lack of infrastructure, misery and discrimination. This uprising died down without achieving any significant change in the situation. Now the student youth of the universities are revolting against the new employment scheme which will transform working youth into an easily dispensable workforce. Today 64 of the 84 universities in France are on strike and many campuses are blocked or occupied by the students. In many places the university workers have joined the protests. The movement has started to extend to the school students who are today joining the university students and the trade unions in a new nationwide day of demonstrations. A national demonstration will be held this Saturday in Paris. It is estimated that some 1 to 1.5 million people will march in the capital. The youth marching on the streets of France today are not the same students as those who rose up in 1968. Today many, if not the majority, of the university students are forced to work to pay their studies. Many of the students on the marches have a foot in the workplace, but often the worst of all workplaces: fast-food restaurants, cleaning companies, call centres etc. Many know from their own experience what exploitation means. But as these jobs seemed temporary more or less many were prepared to tolerate the bad working conditions. Now that the government has announced this new job scheme, student youth – in reality part time working youth - are realising that they will face the same conditions after having finished their studies. They will face temporary contracts, flexible working hours, and the arbitrary actions of the bosses for the rest of their lives. Not accidentally, France is the country with the highest percentage of short term contracts in the OECD! The workers and youth cannot tolerate this. So this student movement finds it origins in the growing exploitation in the workplace. Young people and workers with their unions are now joining in a new movement which can force the right-wing government to retreat. If they win, and that is a distinct possibility, it will give a new impetus to the left in France and elsewhere.
Over the past weeks the mobilisation against the Villepin government’s First Employment Contract (CPE) has grown significantly, culminating in a nation wide demonstration of more than 1 million people. The indisputable success of the action on March 7 clearly illustrates the rejection of the CPE by the bulk of the working class and youth. It completely discredits any claim by the government that it has the support of the silent majority in its crusade against youth unemployment, this despite the weaker mobilisation last February (around 400 000 demonstrated nation wide) which was undermined by the mid-term school break. The success of this mobilisation is all the more important as it illustrates the unity of workers, youth, students and teachers in the struggle against the casualisation of labour and the deterioration of working conditions.
The revolt of the Estates
In the background of these protests lie the riots of the disenfranchised and unemployed youth of the estates across France which occurred in late 2005 (see: The revolt of the French estates). These revolts were a clear, although perverse, message to the government that its policies of social austerity, its attacks on the unemployed, and its neglect of the education of working class youth, mainly of immigrant background, and all the further wearing down of the social gains of the working-class had to come an end.
In response to these riots, apart from declaring the State of Emergency and sending in the riot police (CRS), the government once again swung the whip of reaction against the working class and youth. Instead of focusing more on education and the improvement of the schools in the working class neighbourhoods, in a country in which the fulfilment of a decent education is already reserved for a small elite, the government passed a law legalising apprenticeships for those as young as fourteen years of age and approving the assignment of fifteen year-olds to nightshifts. By doing so the French government scrapped what the working class had considered to be a fundamental right since the end of the Second World War, free and mandatory education until the age of sixteen.
However, this was not enough for the conservative Villepin government and the class which supports it, the bourgeoisie. In mid-January of this year, to the unending joy of the bosses, Villepin presented the so-called First Employment Contract, which was to provide a tool to tackle youth unemployment by giving the employers more freedom to determine the working conditions of their young employees’. Of course, the truth of the matter is quite different. This new contract was nothing but another gift to the MEDEF (Movement of French Enterprises, the “bosses’ union”), which would allow employers to sack new employees under the age of 26 at any time for any reason within a two-year probationary period. The CPE will also make it more difficult for the sacked worker to resist the unfair and unjustified sacking as this new contract makes such action completely legal for the bosses to undertake.
The spectre of the CIP
In the shadow of the CPE lurks the spectre of the CIP (Professional Insertion Contract) which was presented by the Balladur (then RPR) government twelve years ago. The CPI sought to create a separate minimum wage for young workers. Under the pressure of the mobilisation of workers and youth, Balladur had to withdraw his proposal. Now, the same Balladur is urging Villepin to stand firm.
The introduction of the CPE represents the lust for revenge of the MEDEF and the other forces of bourgeois reaction in French society, not only against the failure of the CIP but also to soothe their violent grudge against the installation of the 35-hour working week by the previous “Plural-left” government (which otherwise undertook a policy of privatisation) and the other progressive reforms it implemented.
For too long the bosses have had to accept that fourteen year-olds belong in school and could not be used as a source of cheap labour to be exploited. The bosses can no longer make concessions to the workers and continue to allow the latter to benefit from the social gains, often won as a result of merciless struggle, acquired over the latter half of the 20th century. It is of course not a surprise that the introduction of the CPE coincides with the proposals of the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, for selected immigration, immigrants being another great source of underpaid labour for the employers.
The reaction of the student unions and youth organisations was immediate upon the government’s announcement of the CPE. Soon they were to come out in their numbers against the government, again in unity with the teachers and the general labour movement just as had happened in the struggle against the CIP in 1994 and against the Fillion law concerning education last year.
The French labour movement, far from being dull and lifeless, and even further from being gullible concerning the government’s promises, has naturally understood that it is only a question of time before the CPE becomes generalised across all age groups of the working class and have thus come out in support of the young workers and students. Even the traditionally more right-reformist unions, such as Force Ouvriere (FO), have called for mobilisations and strikes against the government’s new contract.
Again, very importantly from a Marxist point of view, the student unions have linked their demands to those of the labour movement rather than going off on some “studentist” binge and thus secured support from the bulk of the class in their justified struggle against the government’s clearly anti-youth and anti-worker employment plan.
The Workers’ Parties and Parliamentary Opposition
After its failure to side with the workers during the campaign against the European Constitution, the Socialist Party (PS) is now trying to rectify this by offering strong parliamentary opposition to the CPE. Whilst this is very good and very important in itself, the conscious base of the party and the Marxists must do everything in their power to ensure that the bureaucratic clique at the top of the PS does not usurp the movement and use it as a tool to meet its own ends.
In its arrogance, the Villepin government decided that debates and amendments concerning the CPE (i.e. Parliamentary Democracy and the procedures that it includes) would not be allowed to slow down the “fight against unemployment” and proceeded to impose clause 49.3 of the French Constitution, which enables the government to pass a law without a vote. The Socialist Party, which had previously threatened to do so should the government make use of clause 49.3, posed a motion of no confidence. Of course, there was no chance of it being passed due to the absolute majority the conservatives possess.
The Communist Party is also opposed to the CPE and although it did not jointly submit the motion of no confidence, voted in favour of the latter. All other “left-wing” parties either voted for the motion and/or jointly submitted it. Clearly some, or all, of these parties (with the Socialist Party in the front line) are preparing for a new “Plural-left” style government.
The Media and Segolene Royal
Knowing what it is bound to receive in the coming elections of 2007, not only due to the CPE but to the last five years of policies of austerity that the government has carried through, the bourgeoisie has begun to promote their own candidate to represent the PS in the run for the Elysee.
In the last few months the bourgeois media has constantly exhibited the figure of Segolene Royal, Regional President of Poitou-Charente and wife of the first Secretary of the Party, Francois Hollande, as the candidate most likely to succeed in taking the PS to power in 2007. Royal herself has been rather silent concerning the protests against the CPE and gladly claims that Tony Blair is “her role model”.
Again, this move to promote Royal as the most likely winner of the 2007 elections is clearly a tactic of the bourgeoisie to ensure that, should the labour movement win, Chirac and Villepin would be replaced by a docile and “market friendly” reformist President and government.
The future battles: No to all precarious contracts! No to the casualisation of labour!
The struggle against the CPE and the policies of social austerity are far from over, and even further from being won, especially not since the plan was approved yet again in parliament on Thursday March 9. The student and workers’ unions have now jointly called for a third day of national mobilisation against the CPE, and forty-five universities have been on strike since March 9. That very same night, the CRS charged against the Sorbonne and barricades were erected on Boulevard Saint Michel, later on to be dismantled by the same CRS. As Marxists, we must look with enthusiasm and optimism at this unity between the youth, the students, and of course, the workers. It is a very constructive step in the struggle against capitalism and its bourgeois masters. The Marxists must strive to preserve this unity and take part in these joint demonstrations to defend our position and methods as being the only ones that can truly bring about a socialist society. The social gains of the working class cannot be preserved in a period under which capitalism is in crisis. The only way by which our gains can be maintained is through tearing the banks and the means of productions out of the grip of the class that currently owns them, the bourgeoisie, and by putting them in the hands the class that produces society’s wealth, the working-class.
No to the casualisation of labour!
No to the deterioration working conditions!