France’s social crisis is smoldering

June 8, 2018

French President Emmanuel Macron has positioned himself as sort of international loyal opposition to Donald Trump — the voice of reason to Trump’s recklessness on the world scene. But in France, he is carrying out an escalating neoliberal attack on workers, students and immigrants, ramming through anti-working class and racist policies.

Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires union federation and member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), analyzes the situation in France after a series of spreading mobilizations that represent the first sustained mobilizations against Macron since his election last year, in an article first published in English translation at International Viewpoint, and edited slightly for publication here.

BETWEEN MARCH 22 and May 26, two months of strikes, demonstrations, blockades in the universities and high schools, street clashes and police violence have shaken France. Everything indicates that this situation of political and social tension will be prolonged in the coming weeks. However, as of yet, there is no centralized plan to confront the Macron government’s program.

Frontal attacks by the government on young people and workers provided the starting point for all the mobilizations.[1] During these two months, the fightback has come mainly from two sectors: railway workers, and college students and high school youth.

The rail workers of SNCF [France’s national rail system] — and, in particular, train staff, mechanics and signal operators — have mobilized massively against the transformation of the SNCF into a private company, an accelerated opening up to competition, and an end to new hires enjoying existing personnel’s work rules.

The four main union federations with members at the SNCF (the CFDT, CGT, SUD and UNSA), with the support of FO (despite the reluctance of SUD Rail), have dictated a two-for-five rhythm of strike days — that is, two days on strike out of every five days. Going back to April 3, 36 strike days have been scheduled, through to June 28.

Striking rail workers march against austerity in Lyon
Striking rail workers march against austerity in Lyon (Secteur CGT Cheminots de Lyon)

Alongside the SNCF, only Air France unions initiated a parallel process of strike days during the month of April to demand wage increases, in an attempt to make up for the 6 percent of real income lost since 2012 under a management-imposed wage freeze.

Developments at Air France reveal the social and political tensions in the country. In April, management noted that relatively few employees had participated in strikes planned on days that followed one another closely, even though these had been decided by a very broad inter-union committee, involving both ground and flight crews, and all the unions except the CFDT and the CGC — the executives’ union.

Management hastily concluded that the inter-union committee did not have workers’ support and became intoxicated by its own propaganda, decrying an “ultra-minority pilots’ strike.” After proposing a settlement that ignored wage increases and offered only crumbs, the CEO then launched, in mid-April, an adventurous plan to organize a referendum, asking workers to support his proposals and saying he would resign if they were rejected.

The result was not long in coming. Despite the use of all possible means of propaganda, within the company and in the media, the result was absolutely clear: With more than 80 percent of Air France staff participating, management proposals were rejected by a majority of more than 55 percent. Jean-Marc Janaillac, CEO of Air France/KLM, therefore found himself sacked by his employees.

Two years after the well-known “torn-off shirt” episode, where two directors of Air France had to flee from a crowd of angry workers, this new example of impertinence and lack of submission to the employer’s authority was denounced by the government and the media, indignant that workers could be able to show their boss the door.

This example is illustrative of the climate in the country. Although the strike movement didn’t expand during the months of April and May, the political and social climate is one of rejection of the government’s anti-social policy.

The Government Has Changed its Tone

This has led Macron and his prime minister to change tactics. When first faced with confrontation with the unions, the government responded with anti-strike agitation in the media. But this only exacerbated the anger of passengers stranded in the rail stations and elsewhere. And even though the strike movement has not broadened, a good many workers have kept up their sympathy with the strikers. The strike itself has held out, even forcing the CFDT and the UNSA to remain in the inter-union committee.

At the same time, the government’s fear that the conflict would extend beyond the railway workers has not materialized in recent weeks. So rather than itself provoking a conflagration by confronting rail workers, the government preferred to open door to negotiations with SNCF unions. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe personally joined a formal dialogue — one that he had ruled out of the question only a few weeks earlier to show his firmness.

Nothing important was conceded regarding the reform liquidating the SNCF as a public enterprise, but Philippe had to give union leaders something to chew on to facilitate a smooth exit from the strikes by the end of June: a commitment that the state would take on 35 billion euros of SNCF debt, and that the law would declare non-transferable the state’s shares in new companies governed by private law.

Neither of these two announcements modifies the frontal attack. They don’t even deliver the guarantee demanded by the unions for the negotiation of an industry-wide agreement, fixing a baseline of rights for employees of the new private companies operating in the sector. Worse, in April, Philippe confirmed the breakup/privatization of rail freight.

But this whole show of social dialogue allows union leaders to move the needle, from outright rejection of the reform legislation to negotiation at the margins of a few points of it.

This tactical change by the government is due on the one hand to the hostility to the reforms, but also, unfortunately, to a strike tactic that has avoided the opening of a social crisis that could block the government’s plans.

The limits of the strike methods in the SNCF

The key argument made by trade union leaders to get the two-for-five strike rhythm adopted was to make the strike movement as long as possible, lasting until the parliamentary vote on the labor reforms in June. However, in practice, the government has stifled any parliamentary debate.

The two-for-five rhythm has maintained a high level of participation in the strikes, but it has also allowed management to adapt and has prevented blockage of train traffic for several days in a row, therefore, avoiding triggering a frontal clash with the government. The SNCF strike tactic also left other sectors to set their own rhythm of action, without facilitating a ripple effect that might have been possible, particularly among state employees.

This state sector of 5.6 million workers — including hospitals, education, public finances and administrative services — is also facing a frontal attack, slightly delayed in relation to the one being conducted against SNCF, but which will result in the loss of 150,000 jobs and includes an attack on wages and a massive use of temporary employees.

Although they mobilized strongly on March 22, the lack of momentum was noticeable for the new inter-union strike day on May 22, being obviously weaker than the massive day of action two months earlier, when railway workers participated in the demonstrations.

The very broad union front of state employees was based on unions like the CFDT and FO, which, at the national level, have explicitly refused to converge their struggles, in particular between railway workers and state employees, even though these workers are subjected to similar attacks. As of yet, no sector of the national state employees has organized combative pressure to go beyond the off-again, on-again strike calendar, and the national union confederations have not helped to mobilize.

The strike rhythm of two-for-five has also deprived the general assemblies of railway workers of control over their movement. In previous movements, general assemblies of strikers voted regularly whether or not to continue their strikes. In this case, with a fixed calendar, they have lost this initiative, making it very difficult since the beginning of April for the combative militants of SUD and the CGT to outflank the fixed schedule.

In this way, the government has avoided a national economic standstill through stopping the means of transportation, and the social movement has not been able to benefit from a rallying point that would make it possible for other combative sectors to join in.

Nevertheless, in the Paris Region, dozens of railway workers, and even a hundred or so recently, have participated regularly in an inter-station general assembly, emanating from the general assemblies of strikers in the local stations. They are trying to overturn the trade-union calendar by proposing actions outside the already fixed strike days at the beginning of June.

To sum up, the strike is holding its own and remains popular among other workers. Support for mobilization is also apparent in the referendum organized by the unions among all SNCF employees, which saw 61 percent participation and 94.97 percent voting against the government’s reform project. Similarly, a strike fund quickly raised more than 1 million euros — this fund is being managed by the four railway unions.

The student movement

Although the government has avoided any direct confrontation with the railway workers, it has not been the same with the university students and high school youth. Since mid-April, in nearly half of France’s 75 universities, strikes, occupations and blockades have developed.

This has resulted in general assemblies that, in some cases, have been bigger than during the movement against the CPE [the so-called First Job Contract reform] in 2006, when the government had to withdraw this attempt to force young workers into precarious contracts in the face of the mobilizations.

The present movement has been largely self-organized, but has suffered from a lack of initiative from the main student union, UNEF, as well as the difficulty of creating a real national leadership for the movement.

Nevertheless, the movement has been massive up until recent weeks, with a third of the universities blockaded or occupied during the months of April and May. This has disrupted end-of-term examinations, and leading to their cancellation or postponement.

This occurred in a context of police violence, where the government, led by Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb, have conducted very violent interventions, arrests and attacks on demonstrations, with the use of rubber-pellet grenades.

Here again, the movement has been widely popular among students facing ORE [Student Success Orientation] and Parcoursup [admission] exams, a new system of selection for entry to universities. The government recognizes that there are only 600,000 places available for students in September 2018, versus 800,000 applications. The system of sorting applications, implemented in recent weeks, aggravates social selection in regard to high school students in lower-income neighborhoods, and means hundreds of thousands of students won’t even get a reply to university applications that they have made.

As the anger of young people continues, the government has decided to hit them hard, to try to scare them. After violent interventions in Nanterre and Toulouse, on May 22, Collomb’s forces went so far as to pursue 128 students into a Parisian high school, where they had organized a general assembly, arresting them and keeping them in custody overnight, without even notifying their families, although almost a third of them were under 18.

The same degree of violence was also employed at the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport construction site, where the government doesn’t want its retreat to be interpreted as a victory or a springboard for militant movements for social ecology and for the defense of the environment. In violently driving hundreds of direct-action environmentalists, known as zadists, out of the occupied areas, the government used explosive tear gas canisters, causing serious injuries to a young man who lost a hand.[2]

Given all this, we have to examine the political and social relationship of forces against the government.

The new element: a common social and political front

To try to build this relationship of forces, the anti-debt group ATTAC and the anti-neoliberal Copernic Foundation took the initiative to build a political and social coalition that resulted in an important mobilization on May 26.

This was preceded by a preliminary protest in Paris dubbed the “Party at Macron’s” on May 5 that resulted in the convergence of political forces and organizations to the left of the Socialist Party, ranging from Alternative Libertaire, to the party of ex-Socialist Party politician Benoît Hamon, to the far-left New Anticapitalist Party, to the France Insoumise movement [France Unbowed, founded by left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon]. Organizers estimated that 100,000 people attended.

Then, on May 26, 200 demonstrations took place all over France, mobilizing 250,000 people — this time with the participation of the CGT, Solidaires, the FSU and a broad common front of organizations and political forces.

This was the first time that such a front had been formed, provoking vitriol from much of the media, which warned against “a dangerous drift by the CGT” and of “Philippe Martinez [leader of the CGT] being led astray by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.”

Thus, political reality has changed compared to last autumn, when Macron seemed able to assert himself without any social mobilization, with only Mélenchon shouting opposition, but in a desert.

Today, a mobilizing alliance is being built. Of course, this comes with all the expected difficulties, because few forces really want to engage in a test of strength by mobilizing in the streets and launching strikes against the government.

But across and among different sectors, the climate has changed. Thousands of activists have raised the temperature, leading to convergences that the government would like to erase through violence. And these convergences are outlining alternative responses on many social questions.

With respect to this dynamic, it’s very important that the Committee for Truth and Justice for Adama was present in the front ranks of the Paris demonstration on May 26.

Adama Traoré was a young man from Creil, a municipality in northern France, who died in July 2016 in the courtyard of the Persan militarized police headquarters in the Paris suburbs, suffocated while he was immobilized by three officers. Since then, his family and a broad committee of supporters have been fighting for justice and denouncing police and gendarme violence in the neighborhoods. Minister Collomb’s willingness to use police violence against protesters only reinforces the need for such action.

The neighborhoods where immigrant workers and the poor reside are being targeted first by the ultra-law-and-order policies of recent governments, including Philippe today, who relies on state-of-emergency provisions now written into law in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. The repressive forces have acquired a sense of impunity, reinforced by frequent acquittals of their members when they are prosecuted on charges brought by families of young victims of police violence.

All the attacks carried out by the present government are the result of sharp cuts in state social spending, of up to 60 billion euros, to comply with European Union budgetary provisions. Linked to the suppression of jobs and reduced means for state employees, these measures directly affect lower-income neighborhoods. It is therefore vital to create a social front that brings together workers, young people and, especially, those who experience segregation and social discrimination on a daily basis.

There is an interplay of all these social and political elements among the strengths and weaknesses of the social movements and anti-capitalist forces.

The social crisis is smoldering in a thousand places. In its present phase, the last few weeks have seen forces that both spread the flames and those that restrain them. The policy of the union leaderships weakens workers’ capabilities to respond, but this is not the only restraint.

In France, the political and social forces that want to fight capitalism, and especially the activists of the NPA, are aware of the urgency of rebuilding a militant network of organizers and movements, local and national, capable of promoting social demands and advocating a project for emancipation that sweeps away the foul odor spread in recent years by reactionary forces, be they right wing or social-liberal.

Macron is the rightful heir to both these forces. He will be confronted by the militant network that is being built today, even if our side’s resistance is growing more slowly than the pace of reactionary attacks requires of it.

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Developments over the last weeks show the way. The government and most media outlets dismiss left-wing resistance as a product and an obsession of Mélenchon. Recent weeks have drawn a completely different landscape — that of a collective, united and radical construction.

Nothing is written in advance, but whatever happens in the coming days, we know the battle will be long.


1. See “A window opens to fight Macron,” “From April to June, prolonged turbulence all the way” and “Against Macron, organize the convergence between struggles.”
2. In 2008, the French government announced a plan to build a new airport on the territory of the commune of Notre Dame Des Landes near Nantes. Local opposition was reinforced by supporters from all over France, some of whom installed themselves on the territory. To the developers who wanted to build the airport, the territory was a “Zone d’aménagement différé” (Deferred Development Zone). To its occupants, it was a “Zone à defender” (Zone to be defended). Hence the term “Zadist.” The government finally abandoned the project in January 2018, but not its determination to clear out the Zadists.

The first version of this English translation was published at International Viewpoint.

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