The only battles that you are sure to lose are the ones you don’t fight…
This year, major sports events seem to have become a focus for union action. Of course, it may just be coincidence. The Rio Olympics and Euro 2016 are both taking place against the background of political turbulence, while a rash of scandals involving FIFA, Russian drugs testing, the so-called “Panama Papers” and the European football association, UEFA, have suddenly revealed the significance of international sport to an increasingly corrupt and enfeebled global capitalism.
But, coincidence or design, the growing turmoil in France as unions and their supporters fight against the Hollande government’s proposals to remove long-standing labour rights, in a desperate attempt to address potentially disastrous levels of unemployment, has found a sporting target worthy of attention.
The draft law, which the French government forced through the National Assembly in May, is due to be debated by the upper house, the Senate, in mid-June. At the same time, a more benign but no less intense battle will play out on the soccer pitches of France as Euro 2016 commences on 10 June, and the union leading the dispute—the CGT—has called for a Day of Action on 14 June.
On the face of it, the dispute looks like a typical French battle of wills, immovable object versus irresistible force. Days of Action do little to move things on, but thery do draw attention to the conflict in no uncertain way. With a major tournament as the backdrop, the dispute is certain to make headlines around the world—even if it’s only the soccer-loving world.
Winning in the political arena may be more complicated than that.
First, the French government is socialist and Hollande’s party is the French Socialist Party. The government has painted itself into a corner, because of its committed to reducing unemployment, currently around 10 percent in the population as a whole and an estimated 25 percent among the young. If Hollande cannot achieve this he has promised not to stand for re-election in 2017. He is literally staking his career on success.
However, success can only be achieved if the French economy grows at much more than the most optimistic forecasts for 2016 of 1.4 percent, or at the expense of existing employed workers who might be required to retire early on reduced pensions to open up job opportunities. The last time Hollande “reformed” the French pensions system, in 2013, the proposals met with widespread hostility from members of parliament, unions, and the general public. The resulting compromise left retirement age untouched and the enormous pension deficit unplugged.
The French unions have been losing members at least since the end of World War II, when a quarter of French workers were members of a union. Estimates suggest only eight percent of workers are unionised, with the main confederations being the CGT, CFDT and Force Ouvrière. Ironically, the decline in union membership is often ascribed to the very legal protections for employees that the Hollande government is now trying to remove.
In the current dispute, the centre-right CFDT is siding with government, while the centre-left CGT, FO and four smaller confederations are opposed to the government. As in previous periods of public disorder, the public, and particularly young people, largely support the opposition and they often form the main body of demonstrators. The demonstrations are undoubtedly fuelled by a sense that Hollande’s labour law represents a grotesque betrayal of his much vaunted socialist ideals.
A former head of the CGT, Louis Viannet, has denounced the government for perpetrating an “aggression that is antisocial, anti-democratic, and I would say also anti-republican.” To condemn the government for being anti-republican is to attack it for being anti-French.
It is unclear how the dispute will play out. The union-led campaign is selectively targetting different areas of the economy—fuel supply, energy supply, and air transport in recent days—and they are meeting with some success. Hollande’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls has suggested that the labour law reforms may be “moderated”, although he has refused point-blank to withdraw them.
Meanwhile, a patchwork of resistance inconveniences the public if it does not bring industry to its knees. There are instances of all-out strikes until the reforms are withdrawn, but for the most part the burning tyres and road-blocks involve just a few union members with the support of the young rebels of Nuit Debout (“Night Arising”), the grass-roots movement that has been at the barricades since weeks before the fateful National Assembly events in May.
Many union members believe that their best hope is a stalemate. “For a while now most of the fights are defensive ones,” says Louis Viannet.
“That’s typically the case with the labour law at the moment. The fact that we are forced to fight defensively isn’t stimulating for the development of unionism, but we have to do it. The only battles that you are sure to lose are the ones you don’t fight.”
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