Macron exposes divisions
The unions are split over the new laws. René Gimpel reports on the compromises and the protests
In the current edition of Monsieur, a men’s style magazine, an editorial entitled ‘Unbowed rebellion’ takes the French national assembly to task.1 The title puns on the radical political party, France Unbowed (France Insoumise - FI), the main opposition bloc to president Emmanuel Macron’s Forward (En Marche - EM) majority.
Monsieur’s editor expresses delight at the spectacle of raucous disputes erupting in the chamber over dress code. When attending debates, FI deputies ignored the requirement to appear in jacket and tie, thereby forcing the assembly’s administration to amend those rules. Monsieur’s editor slyly remarks that, while FI insists on its MPs’ right to dress down, they do not do so for assembly staff and employees, all of whom have to dress formally.
This is a meagre gain for the opposition in a summer that up to now has seen the left on the defensive. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, trumpeting leader of FI and, admittedly, a skilful and disruptive debater at the assembly, has been touring the country all summer, holding rallies to raise morale among his followers. In the meantime, Macron has been splitting the trade unions over the issue of employment law reform - or, as Mélenchon and others call it, his social coup d’état.
The history of these proposed changes goes back to 1999, when two national leaders, chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and UK prime minister Tony Blair, jointly formulated the ‘modernisation’, as they called it, of unemployment benefit. Their guiding principle was: ‘Better the poor sweat than live on the dole’. Mastermind behind the German plan was one Peter Hartz of the Volkswagen company and the final version of his plan is known as ‘Hartz IV’. As implemented, this plan has led to the pauperisation of a million people and the precarious situation of millions more. As SPD president Franz Müntefering put in a speech to the Bundestag in 2006, “Only those who work should be able to eat.” Hartz was lionised until disgraced for bribery and a prostitution racket. Sentenced to two years imprisonment, suspended and fined, he moved to France.2
Once there, Hartz expounded his plans to president François Hollande. He explained that dismantling employment security had allowed German firms to shed employees, then rehire them on piecemeal rates and zero-hours contracts, endlessly restocking workers from job centres. A pot of gold.
In turn, Macron has been seduced by this vision. Having secured a majority of deputies in the assembly, nearly all of them inexperienced and beholden to their master (who has made them sign a pledge of allegiance), plus a skilful peeling away of talent from other parties (notably the right), Macron has now moved to split the trade unions.
French unions have only a third of the membership of their British counterparts, but wheel a great deal more power. By statute they are present in all enterprises of 50 or more employees and on the boards of all major companies. It is this situation which Macron is aiming to dismantle. Historically, the largest and most militant union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), traditionally under the leadership of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), has led the charge against successive administrations’ attempts to weaken employment rights. Last week it headed several demonstrations, culminating in the September 21 march in Paris, where it claimed 150,000 came out on the streets. However, this year the CGT was overtaken in terms of membership by the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), which has now displaced it as the leading force in the private sector for the first time in a century.
The CFDT’s general secretary, Laurent Berger, not only failed to fall in behind last week’s protest, but went out of his way to announce that he had come to an agreement with the president after several meetings at the Elysée Palace. Berger added that he would not take orders from Philippe Martinez, the CGT’s general secretary. Meanwhile the third largest union, Force Ouvrière (FO), likewise has chosen its own path to the president and is “in discussion”. Given splits in the union response, groups of workers have begun to organise rolling sector days of resistance or, as 20 Minutes, the free French morning newspaper puts it, “To each day its strike”.3
Two weeks ago the PCF organised its annual fête de l’Humanité - a week-long cultural and political jamboree. A PCF leader took the opportunity to take a swipe at Mélenchon, to which the latter responded immediately. Mélenchon reminded the PCF that FI had overtaken the communists in numbers of deputies in the national assembly, while in turn the party reminded FI that without PCF support FI would find itself more than usually isolated.
A grateful guest of the PCF at the fête de l’Humanité was Benoît Hamon, defeated Parti Socialiste candidate in the presidential elections. Subsequently the PS was decimated in the June 2017 parliamentary elections, down from 290 to 29 seats. A slew of long-serving deputies lost their seats, while others defected to EM.
Meanwhile, the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière organised its own march in Paris, accusing Mélenchon of “café socialism” and of wanting a united left only if he can lead it. On September 23 it was the turn of FI itself to march in protest along the Paris boulevards, with Mélenchon boasting that 400 coaches had brought supporters to the capital from all over France. This seemed to have mobilised around the same numbers as the CGT-organised event a few days earlier.
Monsieur’s editorial finishes with a flourish. Referring to the French Revolution, it characterises FI deputies as “sans culottes”. The sans culottes (trouserless) were the poor masses who drove the French Revolution. They radicalised it time and again, whenever it showed signs of faltering. Monsieur points out that before being guillotined, condemned men were required to remove their cravats and open their collars.
If FI unites its forces with other left political groups and the trade unions, not least the PCF and CGT, might they be able to block Macron and condemn his proposals to the guillotine? Or might they fail, allowing Macron and French capitalism to lead the FI deputies to the scaffold? Sartorially at any rate they are already tieless.
1. Monsieur September-October.
2. Le Monde Diplomatique September.
3. 20 Minutes September 18.