A show of continuing defiance in France

June 20, 2016

More than 1 million people marched in Paris and cities around France on June 14 as the Senate began discussions of a law pushed by the Socialist Party government that strips long-held protections from the country's labor code.

The legislation, known as the El Khomri law after the Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, has provoked a mass resistance, starting with the Nuit Debout ("Up All Night") daily demonstrations at Paris' Place de la République and other public squares. Later, working-class organizations entered the struggle. The most prominent is the General Confederation of Labor (CGT by its initials in French, the largest of the country's several union confederations)--Force Ouvrière and Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD) are also participating in the calls for protests and strikes.

Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires federation and member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, explains what the June 14 strikes and protests accomplished--and what lies ahead in sustaining and strengthening the struggle. The article first appeared in English translation at the International Viewpoint website.

FOR THE government and the media controlled by the regime and the big corporate conglomerates, this day was to be a non-event, the symbolic gesture of an exhausted movement. And yet a huge procession marched in the streets of Paris on June 14, 2016, crossing the southwest neighborhoods of Paris from the Place d'Italie to Invalides. Four hours after the departure of the first demonstrators, groups were still waiting to start. While the CGT announced there were 1.2 million demonstrators, the government saw only 120,000 people in the streets, making a point of honor in claiming that this figure was the lowest total since March 31. But above all, the only message from media and government about this event will concern "the violence of the rioters"--based on a dozen broken windows and some walls tagged at a large pediatric hospital in Paris that was along the route. Concerning the merits of the case, the prime minister has the position that the case is closed, the law is sealed, there will be no changes, and social mobilization must immediately disappear from the media screens. Moreover, he even threatens to ban the next demonstrations planned for the coming week.

More than 1 million people took to the streets of Paris against labor law deform
More than 1 million people took to the streets of Paris against labor law deform

And yet mobilization continues. This was the biggest Parisian event since the beginning of the movement three months ago--two or three times larger than that of March 31. Obviously, the Paris demonstration was a national event, but several large cities were also in the streets, including Marseille, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Rennes and others. Similarly, the atmosphere wasn't like the last time around the track. Because in this event, as in all the demonstrations undertaken for some weeks, the state of mind is one of determination. A large number of employees came from both large and small enterprises in the private sector, from all regions, most often brought in coaches by the CGT, but also by Force Ouvrière or Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques [SUD].

The demonstration and its slogans reflected determination in the demand for withdrawal of the El Khomri law and the rejection of the Socialist Party [PS, by its initials in French] government. Despite the daily propaganda conducted for months on television and radio by the PS, not to mention all commentators and so-called economic and social experts, workers are still standing firm against this law: In all surveys, only 30 percent of those polled support the maintenance of the draft law. Some 70 percent--and almost all workers--want its withdrawal pure and simple or at least profound changes.

AND YET, the movement has not yet managed to force the government to concede. The conditions present since the beginning of the movement are still there. On the one hand, the government is still as weak. Its credibility is reduced week after week to almost nothing. The Valls-Hollande duo displays the face of strong leaders, of an increasingly repressive state, to hide its weakness. The prime minister plays on this theme by repeating incessantly that France is at war in the face of terrorism--that the Republic must be defended, and there is now media hysteria, orchestrated by the government, concerning any event that may enter into this reading. Thus, on the morning of June 14, after the murder of several police officers in the Parisian region, the Minister of the Interior acceded to an old claim of the reactionary police unions and of the extreme right: authorization for police to carry weapons while off duty. The damage suffered by the facade of the children's hospital on June 14 was turned by the prime minister into "a devastated hospital," while, in fact, no demonstrator entered into the hospital. But this media portrayal of an "inhuman act" will serve to justify, perhaps, the prohibition of future demonstrations. Ironically, the leader of Force Ouvrière, Jean Claude Mailly, responded to this threat by saying that it should also be necessary to ban the next matches in [the Euro 2016 soccer tournament], the pretext for multiple clashes, with at least one death and some serious injuries already. On this police state terrain and against the setting of a country at war, the government is beaten at its own game, the right wing and the National Front reproaching it now for its weakness in the face of social disorder.

This climate of state, government and police violence is applied to the demonstrations. At least 150 demonstrators were injured on June 14, 15 had to be directed to emergency services and at least one is in a serious conditions, his spinal column struck by a tear gas canister fired at point-blank range. Flash-balls, body armor, stinger grenades and tear gas are used to seriously injure demonstrators, not to mention charges against the marches with police using truncheons.

The government is therefore seeking to get out of the situation after June 14 by increasing tension and police violence. The goal is to definitively break the social movement before the second passage of the law in the National Assembly early in July.

ON THE side of the movement, things are still contradictory. The timetable for action given by the national inter-union alliance [the Intersindicale] is much too widely spaced, especially since mid-May, and doesn't allow the building up of the relationship of forces needed to defeat the government. The determination of combative union teams has allowed the maintenance of the strength of the movement up to now, but many sectors and enterprises have gone on strike in a scattered manner, resuming when another started.

The only time the government has come close to climbing down in recent weeks was at the end of May, when the blockade of fuel depots and the strike by truck drivers closed down 30 percent of service stations. Defeating the government is only possible by a blockade of the economic life of the country--one at least strong enough to create a situation in which the social and political isolation of the executive requires it to give in.

This is something many trade unionists have been aware of since the beginning of the movement. It lay behind the "We must block everything" appeal launched on March 22 by 100 trade unionists, mainly members of CGT and SUD. It was also the state of mind of many trade union teams who, particularly since mid-May, have multiplied blockades and strikes, such as in trash collection and processing in several cities in France. Employees in the oil refineries held out for several weeks, but the impact of their strike was broken by the massive import of fuel by the big corporate groups. The strikes in the French Rail and by Air France pilots, organized by local demands, have not been able since June 1 to generate a strength comparable to the previous weeks. This is all the more so since in rail, prior to the renewable strike imposed on the CGT from June 1 onwards, there had been, since March, several isolated 24- or 48-hour actions, using up some strength.

However, other sectors, workers in the nuclear power plants, ports, glassware and the agriculture and food processing sector have also entered into action in the past few weeks. The strength of this movement and the composition of the demonstrations shatter the image built up over the years of a trade union movement limited to employees in the public sector. For some months it has been employees in industry, transport, trade and services who have led the mobilization.

Stuck in a situation in which it is not the master, the CGT leadership is trying to maneuver, particularly since mid-May. Caught between the strength of the movement and the refusal of the government to negotiate, Philippe Martinez manages, but does not want to push more towards confrontation. Thus, he has explicitly refused to take advantage of the launch of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament on June 10 to try to put the government on the defensive, abandoning the unionists who had strengthened the strike on the transport lines serving the football stadiums.

Similarly, the Intersyndicale has no plan to escalate mobilization after June 14. The next action is only for one day on June 23, and the Intersyndicale calls not so much to strengthen the strikes but rather to multiply petition signings. The CGT departmental union for the Bouches-du-Rhône, for its part, is relying on the strength of June 14--with 300 companies in the private sector in the Marseille region striking that day--to launch an appeal for a 48-hour strike on June 23-24, with the intention of forcing a real showdown. Once again, nothing is yet settled in this mobilization, which has lasted four months, having renewed its forces several times.

First published at International Viewpoint.

Further Reading

From the archives