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Issue #1734      June 8, 2016

Class war in France

The battle being waged on the streets of France should be of particular interest to all sections of the labour movement in Britain. More than half a million students and workers have taken to the streets in France over the last few weeks, with rolling strikes, pickets, occupations and clashes with police being a daily occurrence.

Protesting the labour law, commonly referred to as the “El Khomri law” after the French Minister of Labour, Myriam El Khomri.

What’s taking place is no less than a politically charged clash between the organised working class and the state for the future direction of capitalism in France.

The scrapping of France’s famous 35-hour working week, by a “socialist” government has garnered most of the attention, but this is just one part of the government’s attempt to fundamentally rewrite the entire labour code.

Two months of rolling strikes have created a situation where five out of eight oil refineries are out of action and 1,600 petrol stations – over 20 percent – are simply empty.

Police have now smashed down a picket line in Marseille, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls announcing that the draconian law would stand and that all picket lines will be forcibly destroyed. Striking rail workers have disrupted services across France, while students forced the closure of some 200 schools.

Flights to and from France over the last fortnight have been cancelled due to separate strikes by air traffic controllers.

Tear gas and water cannon used by police abound and hundreds have been arrested in Nantes, Toulouse and Rennes, while clashes in Paris have become routine. Demonstrations are building by the week, with turnouts estimated at 1.2 million.

Already, younger people in France are hostile to the flexible labour market. Ninety percent of new job contracts are short-term fixed-duration which normally last three months.

Demands for permanent employee contracts or “Contract duration indeterminée” have become a rallying cry.

The changes to the labour laws have been forced through using a presidential decree, rarely used except in states of national emergency, to bypass the French parliament.

President Francois Hollande’s government has resorted to the classic neo-liberal argument of making the domestic economy more competitive. So much for the EU protecting employment rights.

For those who still argue that Brexit would undermine British employment rights by allowing a right-wing government a free hand, explaining how the EU can permit a French “left” government to attack terms and conditions with savagery poses a bit of a quandary.

Of course British workers, who are now topping out an average of 43.6 hours a week, must look enviously across the channel at labour laws that enforce compensation from employers for any workers who undertake more than the 35-hour week, even under a government pursuing a largely neo-liberal economic agenda.

Still there may be signs of compromise ahead, with public opinion firmly against the government.

Potential government embarrassment during the month-long European Championships due to start in less than a fortnight are widely being seen as cause for the announcement of a pay rise for schoolteachers worth €1 billion by 2019 and a pledge to speed up reorganisation talks at the SNCF railways.

The restoration of slashed funding for research, and settlement of a dispute over performing artists’ unemployment insurance has also emerged.

Hollande also hinted in an interview with Sud-Ouest newspaper that he would announce a softening of cuts in state financing for local authorities when he addresses a congress of mayors shortly.

The reverberations of the last few weeks will continue to be felt not just in France but in every advanced capitalist country.

Morning Star

Next article – Closure hits 11,000 jobs

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