Riot police clashing with striking workers, students shutting down universities, teargas and cars torched in the streets – the mayhem this past week in France evoked memories of 1968, the tumultuous year when mass protests threatened to overthrow a French government back then.
The public fury last week in France boiled over into ugly scenes in several cities, with protests spreading across the country, fanning out from the capital Paris. The French public are furious. And they have right to be.
The uproar mounting over several months now is due to the government’s plan to overhaul the country’s comprehensive labor laws. The essential thrust is to re-write the laws in order to make private businesses and companies hire more workers – by making it easier for them to fire workers!
If that sounds contradictory, then it is a fitting epitome of this French government. President Francois Hollande and his ruling Socialist Party led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls claim, at the risk of sounding tautologous, to be «socialists».
Yet the supposed socialist government is embarking on a ruthless project to smash workers’ rights on behalf of capitalist enterprise.
This week premier Valls presented his so-called labor «reforms» to business representatives and to France’s powerful trade unions. Neither were pleased, with the business groups scoffing that the government had caved into public protests over their much-touted reforms, while unions claimed the proposed changes were still an unacceptable assault on workers.
Students and workers are now pushing ahead with even bigger protests, with more nationwide demonstrations reportedly planned over the coming weeks. It appears that Valls’ government has ignited a firestorm that it can no longer douse.
Valls’ economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, is the personification of the French government’s widely perceived betrayal, in the eyes of ordinary Socialist Party members and the wider public. Reports describe the 38-year-old rising star as being seen as «toxic» by many ordinary French. Macron is a former investment banker who worked at Rothschild before being drafted into government. Yes, that’s right, an investment banker for one of the world’s major capitalist enterprises is given the portfolio of economy minister in an avowedly socialist government. Eh, conflict of interest comes to mind.
It has been Macron’s ministerial brief to push through «business-friendly reforms». Speaking at the Davos summit earlier this year – the annual confab for global capitalists – Macron told his audience that France’s «bloated» labor laws would be stripped. He particularly mocked the country’s statutory limit of a 35-hour working week, vowing that company management would henceforth be allowed to set their own limits.
Macron has also talked about smashing other «glass ceilings», such as relatively strict rules against firing workers and onerous financial compensation for employees who claim they have been unfairly dismissed by bosses. Another target for Macron is to do away with collective bargaining by trade unions, and to permit firms to negotiate terms of pay and conditions with individual workers.
From the capitalists’ point of view – and evidently it is a view shared by premier Valls and his economy minister – the root problem for France’s sluggish growth and high unemployment is that workers have too many rights. By making it easier for private companies to fire workers or make their employees clock up longer hours – so the argument goes – the bosses will be inclined to take on more staff, which it is assumed will result in higher macroeconomic growth for the country.
France wants to follow the Anglo-American model. Britain and the US appear to have better economic performances than France and lower official unemployment rates. The US jobless rate is reported at around 5 per cent, whereas the French unemployment figure is 10 per cent, with the rate rising among youth to 25 per cent. But in Britain and the US, workers are notoriously stressed from much longer working weeks up to 48-60 hours. They also suffer from so-called «in-work poverty» from being underpaid, with less legal protections against hire-and-fire bosses and «zero-hours contracts».
In other words, Britain and the US are more nakedly capitalist models where workers are mere profit-making inputs to be cast aside when no longer required. Britain and the US may be sought after as destinations for unemployed migrants who are desperate for any form of income. But that is no endorsement from a humane viewpoint.
What we have here are fundamental questions of ideology and morality. Are workers and the rights they have won over centuries of labor struggles to be discarded like human chattel?
Compared with the Anglo-American model, France’s relatively more civilized culture for workers should be seen as a virtue to be staunchly defended, not sacrificed on the altar of insatiable profit-making.
Another fundamental ideological difference is that the French government is following the official British and American prejudice that scapegoats workers for low economic growth. In this logic, economic growth can only be revived by making workers toil harder and longer. The more insecure the workers are made to feel, then the harder they will work and the more bosses’ profits will be boosted.
This is a fallacious – not to say immoral – way of looking at contemporary economic conditions. Since the global economic crash in 2008, what needs to be understood is that the problem of low growth in France, Europe, and even the seemingly better UK and US, is not really an issue of worker productivity. It is a much bigger question about a fundamental, historic breakdown in the capitalist system. This is reflected in the record level of inequality between a tiny elite and the vast majority of society. Chronic poverty and austerity wages are why consumption and growth have become stagnant. The systematic injustice needs to abolished, not appeased.
The French government, as in so many other Western countries, has become nothing more than a lobby for the capitalists and their financial oligarchy. Bailouts for the bankers and bosses, but buckets of misery for the masses. What governments should be doing is defending the rights of the vast majority and pushing an agenda that radically redistributes justice in the form of much higher taxes on corporations and the rich, while bringing banks under public control. In a word, socialism is required, not more draconian capitalism.
It looks like the French population at large have finally run out of tolerance for the pseudo-socialists ruling in Paris. Shamelessly, this government is attacking basic rights and mocking touchstones of civility, such as a cap of 35 working hours per week. It truly is Orwellian when such a basic benchmark of human decency is blithely despised by those who claim to be «serving the people».
In a more rationale society why shouldn’t workers’ hours be reduced to 25 hours and let the firms take on more staff to maintain output. Oh, it reduces profits and rich dividends for directors, they might say? Well, too bad, let the exploiters take a cut. Better still, let workers and the public take ownership of companies and banks.
One irony in French politics is that Manuel Valls and his de facto capitalist administration have become hysterical about the popular rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Valls and others on the pseudo left deprecate Le Pen’s party as racist, extremist and even fascist. It is arguable that the National Front has gained popular support, as with other similar parties across Europe, precisely because of increasing economic insecurity among workers and society generally. That insecurity, in turn, feeds into anti-immigrant hostility among some sections who see their livelihoods threatened by foreigners.
Ironically, perhaps the biggest recruiting agency for the National Front in France is the pseudo-socialist government of Manuel Valls and his president Francois Hollande. These charlatans are not only attacking workers on behalf of private profit, they are fueling social strife, breakdown, hatred, xenophobia and, in its worst manifestation, fascism.
The danger of a fascist state is not hyperbole. France’s emergency laws deployed since the terror attacks last November in Paris forbid all public demonstrations – in the interest of «national security». As public protests over the coming weeks rightly and legitimately challenge the reactionary French government’s attack on workers, it is only a matter of time before riot-police squads begin to implement mass detention of these same demonstrators, under the pretext that they are threatening national security.
That raises a grim and not inconceivable scenario. French workers and students clubbed off the streets by armed police and thrown into prison without due legal process. Because they oppose an authoritarian government shredding their legal rights? No wonder echoes of 1968 are in the French air.