06.27.2016
  • France

Out of Work, Into the Streets

  • Benjamin Birnbaum

The struggle against France's labor reform has united discontented youth with trade union militants.

Since February’s announcement from François Hollande and Manuel Valls’s Socialist Party (PS) government that they would “reform” the French labor code, the country’s political life has been rocked by mass protests.

The stakes are high. The proposed bill would weaken workers’ bargaining power and lower wages, while extending working hours and making layoffs easier, compounding existing mass unemployment.

In the past, protests against neoliberal labor bills have come mostly from the organized labor movement. But the struggle has mobilized a much broader base — which took a radical turn in mid-May — and has led to a major political crisis.

Only 5 percent of the population is satisfied with President Hollande and the voices calling the government — which has lost its majority in parliament — to step down find a wide echo. At the same time, the police, traditionally one of the most firmly established institutions of the French state, has to face increased scrutiny for its violent treatment of protesters.

To understand the strategic debates emerging from the movement’s radical dynamic, we must first examine how it emerged.

French youth — many of whom act outside the traditional left-wing parties and unions —kicked off the February and March protests against the bill.

While they leveraged social networks and planned demonstrations, the unions — with their still enormous power to turn out people — took a hesitant stance. This despite the fact that 70 percent of the population opposes the labor bill.

In order to deepen the struggle, activists called for the occupation of public squares on March 31, the first major day of strikes. Every recent revolt or revolution — Tahrir, Syntagma, Maidan, Gezi — has shown the strategic importance of occupying public spaces.

The March 31 strikes were hugely successful, bringing together more than 1.2 million demonstrators nationwide. Many gathered later that day at the Place de la République in the center of Paris to create Nuit Debout.

The square quickly became host to a diverse movement united by a shared anger. Different demands and tactics developed more or less simultaneously.

Protesters occupied the streets in front of the prime minister’s house, built up barricades in the prestigious Seventh District, called for the immediate release of arrested activists, and blocked the access to a shopping mall.

The same organizers also set up debates on vegetarianism, the general strike tactic, Islamophobia, and police brutality.

Outside of traditional workers’ organizations, the movement created a second pillar for its struggle. This allowed thousands of people to transform the fight against a labor bill into a wholesale critique of the existing order.

But there isn’t competition between Nuit Debout and the unions, rather a symbiotic relation: “While Nuit Debout depends on the struggle against the labor law, the struggle depends on the expression of general revolt embodied in Nuit Debout.”

The Struggle Widens

Although Nuit Debout has consistently animated protests and there were some important marches in April, the unions shrank back from accelerating the rhythm of strikes and demonstrations until early May.

Then a strong political crisis appeared on the horizon: as the date of the labor bill’s vote at the National Assembly approached, the government realized that a substantial number of Socialist MPs were going to refuse to vote for the bill, making a parliamentary majority impossible.

Prime Minister Valls decided to resort to article 49-3 of the French constitution. This article allows the government to enact legislation without a parliamentary vote.

The only way to oppose a bill pushed through with 49-3 is a vote of no confidence, which would bring down the government. Valls gambled — and won — on the hypothesis that even though certain Socialist Party MPs opposed the bill, they wouldn’t vote for the administration’s dismissal.

Despite a two-day occupation of the area in front of the National Assembly organized by Nuit Debout, two no-confidence motions — one led by the Left Front parliamentary group, the other by the Right — failed to win a majority. As a result, the labor bill was adopted.

But the battle isn’t over. There will be two more readings of the bill, first in the parliament’s upper chamber and then once more at the National Assembly, which gives the protest movement enough time to gain strength.

The deployment of 49-3 was a key moment, as the unions fighting the labor bill saw its usage as a declaration of war. Within a days, key sectors — rail, road, sea, and air transport, the chemical industry, and many others — announced renewable, and in some cases unlimited, strikes, triggering a powerful strike wave on May 19.

Truckers and refinery workers took the first concrete steps toward frontal opposition. The truckers’ strikes disrupted the flow of goods, and the strike in the refineries limited gas stations’ fuel supply. During the week of May 23, the industrial action extended to all eight of the country’s refineries.

At the same time, union members and other activists blockaded fuel depots and strategic road axes across the country, bringing the French economy to a standstill. In a parallel action, Le Havre oil terminal workers — where 40 percent of France’s oil imports enter — decided to join the strikes.

Nuclear power plant workers have also stopped work, cutting electricity for certain state buildings and for local MEDEF headquarters — the country’s largest bosses’ lobby and number one defender of the labor bill. At the same time, they’ve lowered the price of electricity for over a million people in the Paris region.

During the week of May 30, the movement further intensified and now includes waste disposal and air transport workers. The latter strike threatened the beginning of the European soccer championship.

In this context of widespread strikes, the demonstrations’ composition has changed. On May 19 and 26, three hundred thousand people came out into the street.

Even though both the National Students’ Coordination (CNE) — a grassroots structure representing students from all universities that acts as the spearhead of youth protest — and the autonomists succeeded in mobilizing participants, the overwhelming majority of them were organized workers on strike.

Criminalizing the Movement

The demonstrators’ large numbers is all the more significant because the government has used a number of repressive tools to dissuade people from protesting.

In November 2015, the French government took advantage of the Paris attacks to implement a state of emergency, which among many other draconian measures, weakened the judiciary branch in favor of the executive branch.

In concrete terms, this produces a twofold dynamic: on the one hand it allows the state to turn political questions into security questions and, on the other, it encourages the police to use physical violence. The broadening of executive powers goes hand in hand with increased police impunity.

At the beginning of the struggle, police provocations specifically targeted the youth movement in order to stall the still-fragile protests. They tried to create incidents at school blockades and youth demonstrations in order to justify severe repression.

One their favorite tactics is kettling: cops arbitrarily form a human barrier around demonstrators to keep them from moving. Often policemen gas the demonstrators or throw so-called non-lethal grenades into the confined crowd, which quickly escalate tensions.

Two police unions have publicly announced that the government ordered them to discredit young people, but the administration doesn’t bear sole responsibility for the violence. A number of officers have used the environment to beat and mutilate demonstrators.

Unlike past social movements, however, everyone is now equipped with a smartphone, and photos and videos of police brutality have proliferated on the internet.

The escalation of violence coincided with some demonstrators’ decision to attack certain pillars of capitalism such as banks and to sometimes fight back against the police. Interestingly enough, most don’t seem to oppose these tactics.

Still, the government and the commercial news media tried to depoliticize police violence and to establish a distinction between the honorable, peace-loving demonstrators and the irresponsible, destructive demonstrators.

In doing this, they set a trap for the movement: it is practically impossible to separate those willing to use force from the rest of the protesters. So, if the unions (for example) published an official declaration refusing solidarity with the movement’s violent faction, it would weaken the struggle as a whole.

Aware of that, the unions refused to denounce certain violent actions, and the speaker of the CNE stated that the movement is diverse in method but united around the goal of labor bill’s withdrawal.

In this context, Nuit Debout organized a day of debates about political violence, leading them to adopt the same stance as the CNE. These discussions also allowed them to further incorporate groups fighting state racism and police brutality within their ranks, linking economic struggles with antiracist struggles.

However, during these discussions, certain autonomists triggered a situation likely to jeopardize the whole social movement. They decided to weaken Nuit Debout’s critique of the repressive actions by pointing out that many protesters also face off against the unions’ security teams.

French unions have squads of union members charged with ensuring the demonstration’s smooth operation. In mid-May, the Parisian police prefecture released a statement the day before an action implying that the labor security team would collaborate with police in order to arrest certain demonstrators — a clear reference to autonomists involved in the movement.

The statement was an obvious police manipulation, and the unions could have denounced it immediately to avoid the conflicts between autonomists and unions that erupted during the following two demonstrations. Only Solidaires, a relatively small, militant union, did so.

Nevertheless, the autonomists’ attack on the unions put them into an untenable situation. They were fighting a war on two fronts: the police and the unions. In other words, the autonomists broke what Daniel Bensaïd has called the “dialectic between unity of action and spillover.”

They abandoned the actions of organized workers, who demonstrate and strike with their unions, and believed themselves capable of recreating a new workers’ movement through their efforts alone.

Two parallel elements have succeeded in reestablishing a relative peace between the unions and the autonomists.

First, several police prefectures — the bodies that represent the French state all over the country — prohibited about twenty activists and journalists from participating in protests. Then, the government started to use “anti-terrorist” measures against demonstrators.

In most of these cases, administrative courts nullified obvious violations of the protesters’ rights. But in Rennes, an Ensemble! organizer has been barred from demonstrations for several weeks.

Other activists from the same city who tried to plan an action making subway access free now stand accused of having constituted a “criminal association.” This claim stems directly from legal measures officially reserved for the “fight against terrorism.”

Activists face repression from the state in two forms: on the one hand, police brutality, on the other, harsh legal reprisals.

The offensive launched from the police prefectures — which could affect any demonstrator — reminded the social movement’s different sections of what they have in common, and contributed to the powerful strike wave the unions launched soon after.

Unsurprisingly, this militancy pleased the autonomist movement and the great number of young, unorganized activists who associate with it.

Power from Below

Despite the strikes’ consequences on daily life in France — such as fuel shortages or garbage piling up — approximately 75 percent of the population supports the actions and opposes the labor bill. Participation in demonstrations remains strong.

While Prime Minister Valls keeps repeating that he won’t cede, the head of the Socialist parliamentary group announced that the government should have “withdrawn the bill,” and President Hollande seems irresolute.

All these contradictions can only strengthen the social movement. The unions’ response to 49-3 accelerated the political and governmental crisis kicked off by youth activism.

Indeed, the administration seems to recognize that a great deal of power is in working people’s hands: the strikes generalized the government’s crisis, and the unions are making the demonstrations grow.

As such, the current social movement calls the Invisible Committee’s theses into question. This group, whose books To Our Friends and The Coming Insurrection are among the bestsellers of French radical literature, inspires a part of the autonomist movement.

They argue that “power now resides in infrastructures,” leading them to a strategy based on blocking the axes of commodity circulation and neglecting the power of stopping commodity production.

But the current situation in France shows that breaking a strike is much more complicated for the government than breaking a fuel depot or roundabout blockade — something they do routinely do.

Of course, blockages and street riots play an important role in increasing pressure on Hollande, but the success of the movement will be determined by its ability to articulate and mobilize discontent in the workplace.