The Social War in France
By the French CNT International Secretariat’s European Workgroup
To understand the present struggle, we find it useful to identify the ingredients contributing to the explosion of a social war that has been sweeping the country in wave after wave of popular protests.
Ingredient number 1: Instill a Little Fear
The day after the November 2015 attacks in Paris by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the French government decreed a nationwide state of emergency. First used in 1955 following the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) attacks on mainland France, these “special powers” were revived in 2005 under the presidency of Jacques Chirac in the context of widespread rioting over the accidental electrocution of two youngsters pursued by the police. It seemed at the time a civil war might start between poor, suburban, immigrant communities and the French middle classes, but curfews and the dream of the “suburban vote” in subsequent elections put an end to that notion.
The new security measures include the militarization of local police forces, the multiplication of people placed under police custody, increased military presence, searches and arrests night and day (without the need for a warrant), and a recent attempt to stifle social protest by banning demonstrations opposing la Loi Travail—labor reform legislation. This latter attack showed us how weak and isolated the state has now become, as its efforts to stop the people fighting to preserve the country’s social model have proved futile. The struggle and demonstrations go on and the cry “On ne lâche rien!” (We shall not give an inch!), is fast becoming a term of salutation.
Clearly, the state of emergency seeks both to muzzle activists and to stigmatize French Muslims. By pitting one community against the other, the government is trying to destroy solidarity and replace it with fear and mutual suspicion. The measures intended to “counter” terrorism have been perverted. In reality, the police have arrested innumerably more activists than terrorists.
Ingredient Number 2: The Chef’s Slight of Hand
While most French people would have been in favor of a state of emergency in the aftermath of ISIL’s brutal murder of innocent people, it quickly became clear during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in December that Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his team were only too happy to apply the “counter-terrorist” measures to any French activist foolhardy enough to claim that in fact capitalism, not global warming, represented the real threat to our planet. All street protests against COP 21 were purely and simply banned! The semantic shift from “defending the nation” from an external enemy to defending it from an “internal” one was seamlessly relayed by the government to the media. Few journalists batted an eye when, during an unauthorized anti-COP 21 demonstration in Place de la République and environs, 341 people were arrested.
On a positive note, organizations like France’s human rights association, la Ligue des droits de l’Homme, rallied against this attack on civil liberties and joined trade union, left-wing, and magistrates’ groups to denounce the Valls strongman initiative. Nationwide protests took place and benumbed journalists asked dissenters how they could possibly justify their behavior to the families of the 130 victims. Embarrassingly enough for the mainstream press, at a highly mediatized commemoration for the victims, one of the three families who refused French President François Hollande’s outstretched hand pointed a finger at France’s “disastrous Middle East policy” and the abandonment of underclass suburbs to despair. Small wonder that this indictment by the father of a 17-year-old girl killed at the Bataclan Theater should first be published not on a French, but on an American media website.
Finally, in a comic incident, the government’s effort to modify the state of emergency by adding a clause which would withdraw French citizenship from bi-nationals accused of terrorism, floundered on the rocks of reality. Firstly, in a country historically priding itself on its egalitarian treatment of all citizens, wouldn’t it be unfair to make a distinction between bi-nationals who could have their French nationality taken away and French-born citizens who could not? Indeed, where could a prison be found for somebody with no nationality? On the moon?
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of this debacle, popularity ratings for Hollande and Valls hit an all-time low.
Ingredient Number 3: A Quick Change of Recipe or…the Government of the People Against the People
La Loi Travail (the labor reform act) is composed of 50 articles designed to destroy victories gained by social movements over the past century, most notably those forged and fought for by members of Résistance, many of whom were tortured and killed during the Nazi occupation of France.
In short, “in-company agreements” will replace collective bargaining. Previously, the terms of collective bargaining had to be accepted by 30 percent of representative unions. With the law, agreements will need to be accepted by 50 percent. Why? Because the government knows quite well that it is highly unlikely that half the unions would agree to terms unfavorable to workers. If no agreement can be reached in such conditions, employers will cynically organize a simple in-company referendum, a system in which the pressure to keep one’s job will see fragile workers voting to have colleagues laid off.
Additionally, the protection of workers will be greatly reduced, as the interest of the company will prevail over that of its workers. Bosses may freely increase the hours of the work week and reduce salaries. Previously, the French labor code imposed a maximum of 10 hours work per day. With the new law, employees may have to work up to 12 hours or more per day. If a worker refuses the boss’s modifications to their employment contract, they can easily be fired—in the interest of the company, of course.
Previously if a worker was not able to work anymore because of sickness or industrial injury, the boss had to find them a new job. With the new law, if the boss cannot find a new job, they can simply dismiss the worker.
Previously, the labor laws imposed an 11-hour break between two working days. With the new law, these 11 hours may be divided up and it will be jolly-well too bad if workers do not get enough sleep!
Also, with the exception of workers who apply for employment to do dangerous jobs, occupational medical visits prior to hiring will be consigned to the dustbin of history. As a result, the majority of workers will not know if they really are medically and physically apt to do the jobs they have been employed for.
Last but not least, with the new law, if a company experiences a financial deficit for more than six consecutive months, the boss can cobble together a redundancy plan and fire all the employees.
Seventy-five percent of the French people are against the new law. Even before it went to parliament, over 1 million people signed a petition against the law. Moreover, two of France’s most representative trade unions, Confédération générale du travail (CGT) and Force Ouvrière, plus all student organizations, as well as 85 percent of small companies belonging to craftsmen or professional people, are against it. Even a majority of parliamentarians and Members of Parliament (MPs) are against the law!
Ingredient Number 4: Add a Pinch of Authoritarianism
The tactic known as “49.3” refers to Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. The government started using 49.3, which meant that it was able to pass the labor reform act without a debate or a vote in parliament or in concrete terms, without the agreement of France’s MPs—the men and women who represent the people.
Back in 2006 when he was in the opposition, François Hollande went on record as stating that “49.3 is brutality, a denial of democracy.” Today, the state and employers, hand in hand, are waging a class war, one they mean to win in the most authoritarian manner. Moreover, in a 2012 pre-election promise, Hollande swore that he would never have recourse to 49.3. “Ah, how times change,” he might now well add!
Finally, to add insult to injury and indeed, in keeping with the authoritarianism of Article 49.3, disgruntled members of reformist unions which support the law are being suspended for having outspokenly criticized their unions’ pro-government position.
Ingredient Number 5: Stir In a Strong Dose of Repression
The fact that the infamous riot police, the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), should be presented by the media as the unfortunate victims of vandals—while the hundreds if not thousands of protestors who in the past few months have been savagely beaten, gassed and imprisoned, are being portrayed as casseurs (rioters)—speaks mountains about the power of journalists and their capacity to brainwash anyone witless enough to take their reports for granted.
During the national, inter-professional strike on June 14, 2016, for example, demonstrators were cattled between a water cannon and two lines of riot police in full battle array positioned in front of a children’s hospital. Mobile autonomous groups of protestors, who limit their actions to writing libertarian slogans on walls and publicity billboards or in some cases, smashing bank windows, replied to police aggression by stoning the CRS in what was undoubtedly the fiercest street fighting our generation has ever seen. Naturally enough, some windows of the hospital were broken. When the tear gas had cleared, the CRS moved on and as the last demonstrators were licking their wounds, the media homed in and showed to a horrified nation, shots of windows broken in the children’s hospital. Not one mention was made of how the police pressured, harassed and brutalized the demonstrators. At best, such reports show the gross ineptitude of journalists. At worst, these reports point to cleverly orchestrated state-media collusion.
Using the state of emergency as a shield, the police are cracking down more and more violently. Innumerable activists and young people—even junior high school students, for example, protesting over the planned closure of their school—are being arrested, injured by the police and attacked with tear gas, flash-balls, or batons. People are going to jail simply for being union activists. We have to cope with a systematic police crackdown against every protest movement, even the most peaceful ones.
At the beginning of the protests against the new labor law, we relied on high school and university students to start the movement. But the government strategy was to severely intimidate young people and their parents. The goal was to try to sweep the movement under the carpet and to break up student-worker solidarity.
In the spring of 2016, seven comrades of the Confédération nationale du travail of France (CNT-F) were arrested and held for questioning. Since that time, this tendency has been become commonplace. Many people have been physically injured in big cities like Nantes and Rennes. In Lille, police smashed down the door of our union office with a battering ram to arrest activists inside. This was the first time in France that the police entered a union office in this way. Recently, the police stopped and searched one of our union trucks in Bordeaux. In Rennes, the Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion (RAID, an elite law enforcement unit of the French National Police) evacuated a youth club which was being peacefully occupied as a protest against the new labor law.
Police violence is not simply made up of isolated incidences. It clearly constitutes the policy of the Ministry of the Interior and the government to destroy our movement, very much to the delight of French fascists, who recently demonstrated alongside policemen fed up of the growing popular hatred for cops.
Popular French Cuisine: The People’s Own Recipe
This people’s movement grew out of protests against the new labor law, but touches on broader issues such as ecology and direct democracy. People involved in the movement organize themselves into working groups and committees to talk and act on the issues. The movement has given rise to a fresh look at today’s society.
The biggest Nuit Debout sessions took place in Rennes, Nantes and Paris. Smaller sessions are to be found in many other cities with varying degrees of success. In Paris, it was not uncommon to see well over 1,000 people standing in Place de la République every night. They lost no time in creating a united front with some unions, like our own. The sessions are run along lines of direct but restricted democracy. They suggest that we reconsider parliamentary representation and give people a voice.
Today, the Nuit Debout movement is undergoing a mutation. It is as if the time for action has come after the months of debate. Groups are taking their own initiatives and getting involved in many local struggles. The Nuit Debout “label” has added a refreshing zest to a movement which is not likely to peter out, given the determination of activists, the multiplicity of battlefronts, and the extremely high stakes this war represents for working people.
Like some other unions, we still think that the general strike must continue until the new labor law is withdrawn. This will be the only way to get what we want. Other unions, however, those which have the greatest impact with the people, think of the general strike in terms of theory but not in practice, hence the rolling nature of the general strike, with all-out strikes occurring only every 10 days or so.
CNT-France is deeply convinced that the fight must go on and more than ever, with a social and libertarian revolution as a finality.