Alex Gordon writes:
Last week, France’s Socialist government issued an emergency decree to weaken workers’ rights at the behest of the European Commission.
Last Tuesday, French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls imposed the hated “El Khomri” law — named after Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri — using an emergency constitutional mechanism (Article 49.3) to prevent a debate or vote that his government would lose in the French parliament.
Fierce opposition to the El Khomri law from trade unions, young people, the left and from within President Hollande’s own Socialist Party has led to weeks of strikes, street protests and demonstrations across France.
In Toulouse a joint appeal from trade unions and local activists mobilised over 1,000 demonstrators at a few hours’ notice.
Hundreds of protesters rallied in Marseille, Montpellier, Lyon, Grenoble, Nantes, Tours, Caen and Strasbourg.
In Rennes on Saturday, CRS French riot police attacked spontaneous street demonstrations with tear gas and protesters built barricades and fought back.
A fifth national day of action jointly called by French trade unions CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, Fidl, UNL for last Thursday followed previous protest strikes on March 9 and 31, and April 9 and 28.
The SUD road transport workers’ union joined CGT and FO in calling an all-out strike by lorry drivers from yesterday.
Unions point out that the El Khomri law slashes earnings and working conditions for truck drivers — a sector where EU social dumping has already wreaked havoc.
The law cuts overtime rates — a leading element in drivers’ wages — and ends statutory working time agreements by permitting employers to impose changes to weekly driving hours, rest periods and rest days.
Average working hours already exceed 43 hours per week for short-haul lorry drivers, and 48 hours for long-distance drivers.
French rail workers greeted President Hollande’s decree by threatening all-out strike action on May 11.
Railworkers’ leaders denounced the proposed “social dumping” at the national rail company SNCF, which will slash 1,400 posts in 2016 after having lost 25,000 already through unfilled vacancies since 2003.
Negotiations to worsen working conditions in SNCF — the publicly owned part of France’s rail sector — to comply with EU directives must be completed before July 2016.
A draft government decree waters down SNCF working conditions to be more competitive with the inferior conditions in private rail freight companies.
Last Tuesday rail workers rallied at Paris Montparnasse station and marched to the Transport Ministry, where their union representatives were meeting employers.
Gilbert Garrel, general secretary of CGT-Rail Workers, the largest union representing French rail workers, blasted proposals for “increased flexibility, increased insecurity, unsupervised night work and reduced daily rest periods.”
If the government doesn’t listen “employers will be responsible for tough action and long-term conflict,” he warned.
The rail unions are jointly planning indefinite, all-out strike action from tomorrow.
President Hollande’s decision to invoke Article 49.3 of the constitution to comply with radical measures the European Commission demanded in November 2015 brutally exposes his own government’s weakness.
Article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic was designed to prevent repetition of the chronic instability that characterised France’s Fourth Republic (1946-58), which famously saw 22 governments come and go in a mere 12 years.
“Forty-nine three” includes a so-called “commitment of responsibility” that allows the president in exceptional circumstances to enact legislation without the inconvenience of holding a parliamentary vote in the National Assembly.
Recourse to this exceptional mechanism is a sign a government has lost support of its own legislators and voters.
France’s GDP has stagnated since 2011 and unemployment remains high. Opinion polls last month, less than a year before the 2017 presidential elections, showed Hollande’s popularity at an all-time record low of 13.5-15 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen polled between 30-32 per cent with the official conservative opposition on 18-22 per cent.
Hollande is unelectable today because he is the political representative of an elite political class that only exists to carry out an economic and political strategy designed by the European Commission to attack workers’ rights and living standards in the interests of the largest and most powerful European monopolies.
This strategy to “enhance European competitiveness” depends on destroying the last vestiges of post-war welfare states won by workers’ struggles during the 20th century.
Hollande’s task of cutting public spending while spurring job creation through “labour market reform” is politically impossible without confrontation with organised labour.
On April 13 the Hollande-Valls government adopted its National Reform Programme in response to the European Commission’s demand for “more latitude for companies to adapt wages and working hours to their economic situation.”
The National Reform Programme lists achievements of the Hollande-Valls government so far as “giving firms the possibility of adjusting their organisation” (the 2015 Macron Law, which gave French bosses greater freedom to hire and fire).
The current El Khomri Law is described as “giving more leeway to company agreements” and “establishing a new architecture for the Labour Code.”
The EU Treaty for Stability, Co-ordination and Governance (TSCG) signed by president Nicolas Sarkozy on March 2 2012 was ratified by Hollande on January 8 2013, reinforcing mechanisms enabling the EU to “co-ordinate and monitor economic and budgetary policies of the member states.”
As the CGT’s Marne Valley Regional Committee puts it: “After showing contempt for the many protesters demonstrating for months against the draft El Khomri law and contempt for the 74 per cent of French voters who reject these socially destructive proposals, the French government reveals itself as the loyal servant of dictats from Brussels and of the boss class by resorting to Article 49.3.”
Hollande has thrown down the gauntlet to French workers and will reap the whirlwind.