2000s >> 2006 >> no-1221-may-2006

Class struggles in France

Doubtless many readers of the Socialist Standard will already know that the strikes and demonstrations in France last month had to do with the new work contracts which the de Villepin government introduced into the legislative process over three months ago. Some of this legislation is already on the statute books: the so-called Contrat Nouvelle Embauche (New Hiring Contract), for example, already covers more than 300,000 hirings in small enterprises. It was only over the infamous Contrat Première Embauche (First Hiring Contract) that President Chirac has back-pedalled  in the face of massive demonstrations. This ultra-liberal legislation was aimed at establishing more flexibility into what is often considered to be a highly protective and rigid system of employment relations in France. This legislation was justified in terms of the high levels of unemployment experienced by young people, the recent riots in France being presented as a wake-up call heard only by right-wing politicians but ignored by the more consensual politicians on the left. French workers were being asked to believe that the scrapping of legal protection against arbitrary hiring and firing was in their own interest.

Both the CNE and the CPE established the principle of abrupt firings with little or no legal protection for workers during a two-year trial period. The CNE affects workers in small enterprises and can be applied to workers of any age whilst the CPE was aimed at young workers up to 26 years of age. Once the two-year period is up (if it ever is), the happy workers will be offered permanent contracts, so everything will turn out well, in theory. Other legal dispositions packaged under the misleading term ‘law of equal opportunities’ include the possibility of hiring apprentices at 14 years of age and the possibility of inducing 15-year-olds to work at night. This partial return to nineteenth-century practices, we are told, would loosen up hiring practices and significantly reduce the high levels of unemployment recorded in the statistics produced by governmental agencies. The cost, of course, will be a significant increase in the insecurity experienced by workers who risk being laid off at any moment. This means that they will soon be unable to find decent accommodation, accumulate pension rights or simply plan for the future in such a way as to constitute normal family life. The contrast with the existing legislation centred on the permanent contract with built-in pension provision and a range of social benefits could not be sharper.

Big Lie
The difficulty of getting workers to swallow the big lie that job insecurity is a good thing being obvious, the government resorted to an ideological broadside aimed at setting one category of worker against another. The students who sparked off the movement against the CPE have been presented as privileged middle-class youth relatively unconcerned with the dire situation faced by immigrants in the run-down sink estates of the suburbs. The de Villepin government asked us to believe that these contracts were designed specifically to help a population of workers which has been consigned to suburban dumping grounds for more than three decades. (The fact that de Villepin waited for more than three weeks of demonstrations before he discovered this ideological fig-leaf shows how clumsy the public relations job has been.) Another strategy was to present French workers as dyed-in-the-wool conservatives defending a status quo made irrelevant by globalisation, the highly indebted nature of the French state and the need to remain in the vanguard of the technological revolution.

Inevitably, the ‘phenomenal success’ of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ in reducing the level of unemployment to a mere 5 percent was wheeled out as a counter-example to French timidity, notwithstanding the fact that the definition of unemployment in Britain has been changed over 20 times since the 1970s in order to disguise the real situation. Workers in Britain are well aware that the unemployment and insecurity which they see all around them does not find its way into the official statistics. The deregulation of the labour market in Great Britain over the last two decades has resulted in a doubling in recorded levels of official poverty and a new category of working poor has emerged to replace the indemnified unemployed. The recent mass strike of over 1.5 million public sector workers clearly shows that workers in Britain are by no means living in a neo-liberal cornucopia.

This said, it’s true that many French workers have enjoyed a level of protection denied to many new entrants into the labour market, young workers and immigrants. The permanent work contract provides access to a range of social benefits and protections which are envied by those workers who hop from one short-term contract to another. The government obviously hoped that this would constitute a source of resentment and jealousy which could be exploited. It’s true that workers on permanent contracts are difficult to fire, given that breaking a contract in these cases is very expensive, compensation being proportional to the number of years worked. But this tactic has backfired: even short-term contracts are better than the almost total absence of legal guarantees contained in the CPE and CNE. Besides, over half a million ‘baby boom’ workers are now leaving the labour force every year heading for retirement, so the level of youth unemployment is bound to fall. The question is whether or not these relatively secure jobs will remain on offer to the new entrants.

The hard fact is that it’s quite clear that in the long run greater job insecurity is on the cards for everyone. Long term permanent jobs – jobs for life – are getting scarcer and even the public sector has been placed on a slimfast diet. The bosses want workers who can be hired and fired in reaction to sudden and unexpected changes in demand in markets where every sale counts. Industrial jobs have been disappearing fast to be replaced by service sector jobs which are notoriously badly-paid and insecure. These trends do not respect political frontiers. The left-wing government under Lionel Jospin imposed a shorter working week in exchange for greater flexibility in working patterns, production workers being placed on call for work during the weekends or in the evenings to meet sudden fluctuations in demand with disastrous consequences for family life. Real wage levels are stagnant or falling. Pension rights have been reduced. A capitalism which attempted to adjust fluctuations in world demand by modifying monetary exchange rates in accordance with the rules laid down by the International Monetary Fund has been replaced by a highly volatile monetary system in which adjustments are made by hiring and firing production workers. The new generation of workers is facing a future where they will be considered simply as commodities, labour power, to be bought and sold in line with demand, all human safeguards having been removed.

The movement

The movement against the new employment legislation was initiated by students at the universities of Poitiers and Rennes. Despite superficial resemblances, these students do not have the same profile as the relatively privileged students who took to the barricades in May 1968. Nowadays university students in France tend to come from the more threatened sections of that section of the working class known as “the middle-class”. Elite students usually go to the so-called ‘Grandes ėcoles’ where they are guaranteed access to a world-class education, contacts into the upper-reaches of the civil service and entry into well-paid jobs in multinational corporations. They are even paid a salary whilst they study. By way of contrast, students in the universities tend to finance their studies by doing Mac-jobs, grants being rare and piss-poor. About 40 percent of students drop out in the first couple of years, disgusted by the ramshackle organisation of the faculties and courses given by a small army of hourly-paid teachers who are already living in the state of insecurity that the young are fighting against. Those who do succeed in this often unimaginative system are usually rewarded by a succession of badly-paid or even unpaid training courses, quite rightly presented as an apprenticeship into the real world of work (exploitation).

It is this threatened section of the so-called “middle-class” which has finally come out in open revolt against the absence of perspectives which capitalism has been trying to get them to accept. What has surprised many commentators has been the brilliant organisation and determination of students formerly presented as apathetic and passive by their elders. Rather than seeking the help of professional politicians and full-time student unionists, the students set up their own system of co-ordination with elected delegates and they undertook mammoth debates on the issues involved in the new legislation. (Some of the debates lasted 72 hours.) Taking advantage of the new forms of communication offered by internet and high-speed trains they improvised a nationwide movement which quickly led to the closure of 60 of the 90-odd universities in France and the partial closure of dozens of high schools. The various attempts made to establish links with production workers have resulted in a spectacular leap forward in political awareness, workers suffering from poverty wages and unemployment having been invited to speak at student assemblies. Safety inspectors, experts on employment problems and workers in jobcentres have been given a chance to talk of their experience. Outreach into the high schools in the run-down suburbs resulted in the presence of thousands of black and Arab youths in the demonstrations, offering an apprenticeship in peaceful political agitation to youngsters subject to social stigma and popular prejudice.

Anyway, it was fun seeing the conservative government caught with its pants down. De Villepin’s authoritarian imposition of the new legislation via the undemocratic procedure of decrees failed to impress the masses. His popularity, never very great, is now in free fall and his political career is seriously compromised. Nobody ever elected him anyway. Chirac, a burnt-out old wheeler-dealer elected faute de mieux in a second round play-off with Le Pen, promulgated the CPE law while at the same time promising to amend it in such a way as to remove some of the more contentious aspects. In the end he had to withdraw it. The short-term winner has been Chirac’s sworn enemy and would-be successor, the insanely ambitious Sarkozy.  As you can imagine, the cartoonists had a field day and the only people not laughing are the leaders of the French ‘socialist’ party who are increasingly filling the vacuum in their political programme with precisely those Blairite nostrums that the young are refusing.

The moment the trade union movement was reluctant to get engaged in a full-blown conflict with the government. Doubtless this has something to do with the fiasco of its mobilisation to counter the government’s pension ‘reforms’ three years ago but it could also reflect the fact that the students have done a good job in discrediting the prime minister and dividing the government. However, the unions could have shown a little bit more muscle. Although the CPE has been withdrawn, the employers seem very attached to the CNE which constitutes a real threat to workers and, it may be added, to the ability of unions to organise workers. Indeed, the MEDEF, the bosses’ union, wants to generalise the CNE to all sectors and age-groups. 

The students, future workers, tried to expand their movement to incorporate all the various categories of workers but they clearly failed to generalize their demands adequately. Vague slogans against the precarious society more often than not failed to reach those workers who have been living from hand to mouth for some time. The reason for this is fairly simple: the general outlook of many of the poorer workers is constrained by the absence of qualifications and the urgent need to find cash. By staying largely at the level of a simple defence of their own immediate interests (in a movement which had all the strengths and weaknesses of spontaneity) the students were confronted by the rapid demobilisation of the movement as the examination season looms into sight. The movement was, after all, a student one albeit with a considerable amount of grass-roots support from the trade unions. The suspicion that the aim of the movement was simply that of defending the value of academic qualifications – what distinguishes the students from the unskilled workers – is, in this sense, inescapable. The unions, for their part, were only too glad to keep the movement within the narrow bounds of the defence of wages and conditions, notwithstanding the considerable level of economic insecurity which already exists. On the other hand there were many hopeful signs that the students were getting to grips with a more general malaise and that the movement was groping towards a wider perspective. It is at this point that the absence of a deeper understanding of what capitalism implies and of the need for a socialist movement embracing all categories of wage-earner was at its most glaring.

A Personal Note

I am not alone in having been taken completely by surprise by the students’ movement. The rapidity of its expansion and its extension to other categories in the population was nothing short of incredible. After the heavy and depressing riots of November with their mindless violence and undercurrent of racial tension, it has been comforting to see an outburst of political activity clearly directed against the poverty and loneliness of capitalist society. Despite the images shown on television, the massive demonstrations were on the whole good-natured and peaceful. The mixing together of young and old, and absence of sectarian politics, and the generally high level of debate was particularly encouraging. Although the movement has not taken a socialist direction, there is clearly a lot of discontent out there seeking a political expression and there does seem to be something of a resumption of the class struggle in Europe as a whole.


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