Repression, racism and the rise of the fascist Front National has dominated French politics for the last four years. But last Thursday over a million people filled France’s streets as workers and students struck against Labour-type president Francois Hollande’s proposed Work Law.
For Olivier, standing at the barricade outside his college in Paris, it showed “how we can give the left a fresh start”.
“This is how we can give hope to the young people and the workers who are voting Front National,” he told Socialist Worker.
This rising movement has unleashed anger and resentment that has been simmering throughout Hollande’s presidency.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Paris alone, filling university student Marine with optimism. “There are too many of us for them to ignore, and they’ve already had to do a lot of backpedaling,” she said.
“The message is clear—we want to get rid of the Work Law and we want a new government too.
“Instead of a government that just calls itself socialist we want a real socialist government, one that looks after people not businesses.”
The huge crowds sang French Resistance and revolutionary songs. They chanted, “No, no, no to the bosses’ law—yes, yes, yes to the revolution!”
Many cities saw marches tens of thousands strong. Organisers said more than 100,000 marched in Toulouse. University student Pierre Ciavarella said the turnout in Marseille was “enormous”.
In the northern port town of Le Havre dockers and their unions pushed for roadblocks as well as strikes to shut the town. “It was a thundering success,” CGT union federation activist Gael Pasquier told Socialist Worker.
The Work Law would let bosses off the leash at a time of rising unemployment and a stagnating economy.
On the Paris demonstration, restaurant worker Georges Bondo told Socialist Worker, “We don’t want bosses to be able to sack us at the drop of a hat—being sacked means not having a future.”
Student Aicha said, “When they come for the youth, the youth come out. They want us to work longer for less pay. My whole college is here, it’s closed, and we’re on strike.”
Organisations backing the march want working hours cut back to 32 hours a week—and some marchers carried homemade signs demanding twenty hours.
For them, demanding a redistribution of working hours goes hand in hand with demanding a redistribution of wealth.
The Work Law would hollow out France’s “Work Code” of workers’ rights—as hard won and proudly defended an achievement as the NHS is in Britain.
David Ammar, deputy mayor of Morsang near Paris, was protesting as part of a Left Party delegation. He said, “The Work Code is a powerful symbol in France. Now the government is going for it, all the anger is crystalising around that. People are really sick of Hollande and his policies.”
Outside a student general assembly at the Paris Sorbonne University’s Tolbiac campus, Sebastien agreed. He said, “I’m against the Work Law because it rolls back the gains other generations fought for. We can’t let it pass, or there will be more that takes us even further into neoliberalism.”
He added, “But it’s allowed us to rally people together.
“There have been defensive struggles against a series of other attacks, but nothing to lead a real fightback around.
“Now we’ve started something and we hope it can go further. I’ve thrown myself into it, started going to the demonstrations and assemblies.
“We might not bring down capitalism—but then again even that has to start somewhere.”
Tolbiac is a stronghold of the movement, along with the universities in the northern suburb of St Denis and the western town of Rennes. But students know they have to broaden the movement—and in particular draw in workers.
Inside the assembly a young woman argued that the struggle had to be more than a youth movement—“Workers and youth are in the same boat”. Tolbiac students have twinned with the union branch of rail workers at the nearby Austerlitz station.
So the unions’ participation in last week’s demonstration was a huge boost to a movement that has so far been carried by students.
Bruno Wable, secretary of the CGT union branch at Bridgepoint tyre plant in Bethune, told Socialist Worker, “We were already fighting to defend the Goodyear 8, now it’s the Work Law too. If it passes it will mean the death of workers.”
The Goodyear 8 were jailed for “boss-napping” after they occupied their factory to stop its closure, and didn’t let bosses leave for 30 hours.
While strikes caused significant disruption—for instance to public transport in Paris—participation was low in many workplaces.
But there is pressure on union leaders to up their game.
The union leaders’ conservatism brought the last comparable struggle in France, against pension cuts in 2010, to a premature end.
It turned what should have been a victory into a draw—and carries a warning for the movement today.
Now the CFDT union federation’s grassroots are up in arms over its refusal to come out against the Work Law. “I’m marching with my CFDT flag, at least then I can hold my head up high,” rep Thomas told the 20 Minutes newspaper.
“It’s kicking off at work—activists and workers are really angry and don’t understand the leadership’s position.”
CFDT activist Sonia slammed the union’s strategy of seeking compromise, saying, “Sometimes you just have to know how to say no.”
Demands for a general strike were among the most popular slogans.
The state’s attempts to repress the movement have so far turned out even more badly than its attempts to trap union leaders in negotiation. Police attacks on students have outraged many who weren’t previously marching.
Sebastien was inside Tolbiac during a now notorious police raid. “It made me want to mobilise more, and it’s from then on that the movement has really taken off,” he said.
The government and the Tory opposition have called on people to support them to keep out the fascist FN. But the movement against their neoliberalism brings more hope than they ever did.
There is still an urgent need for a fight against the FN and the mainstream Islamophobia and racism it feeds on. But the struggle that has erupted against the Work Law puts such a fight on much more favourable ground.
The minister for women’s rights, children and families, Laurence Roussignol, dragged the debate about Muslim headscarves even deeper into the sewer last week. She compared women who wear them to “Negroes who were in favour of slavery in the US”.
But for Aicha, who marched in a headscarf alongside black and white and Muslim and non-Muslim classmates, “It’s ridiculous to say that.
“I choose what I wear—it’s my right and my liberty.”
This struggle is the only way we can stop that. Mobilising for it is a duty—it’s the only way we can bring things back round to the left."Arthur, student in Paris
The elite Louis Le Grand college stayed open even throughout the mass movement against former president Jacques Chirac’s youth employment law in 2006. But last week students from other colleges rallied to help activists there picket it.
“This place cultivates an image of the place where the elite of the nation is trained,” said Leo. “It’s supposedly more important than the other colleges and has to stay open when they close. We think that’s all the more reason to shut it.”
Gesturing at the pile of wheelie bins barricading the college gates, Arthur said, “This can seem like a ‘violent’ or disruptive sort of action. But whatever they say, we’re not idiots doing this for no reason. There’s something important behind it.”
He explained, “The Work Law takes us further into an economy of precarious work. That precarity fuels the far right’s gains. Unemployment gives the FN votes. Bosses are given such power over workers they can order them to work longer—people feel disrespected and that sends them towards the FN.
“This struggle is the only way we can stop that. Mobilising for it is a duty—it’s the only way we can bring things back round to the left.”
A victory against the Work Law could make a difference—and Hollande is teetering. The night before the mobilisations Hollande dropped the repressive constitutional changes that he announced after the Paris attacks last November.
He tried to blame the Tories who opportunistically opposed elements of his clampdown while clamouring for more repression.
But plans for stripping citizens with dual nationality—mostly North Africans—of their French passports bitterly divided his government.
David said, “We won a first victory against the removal of nationality. Four months of noise for nothing, he’s done a U-turn. It shows that he can be pushed back, that we can beat him on the Work Law too.”
Aicha said, “Politicians can be stubborn. But the more of us there are, the more chance we have of winning. If they apply this law it will be war—and we will win it.”
The movement is still gaining strength. Some colleges saw student strikes again on Friday, and further nationwide days of action were planned for this week.
After Thursday’s march in Paris, thousands gathered in the iconic Place de la Republique square.
Hundreds stayed for an all-night occupation, called under slogans such as “Bring the struggles together”. Larger numbers turned out on the following nights as it caught the mood.
In defiance of the state of emergency, the occupation outstayed the permission granted by authorities.
College students Rachel and Judigaelle thought the end could be in sight. “We’re hopeful they’ll have to listen to us,” said Judigaelle. “It’s a democracy isn’t it,” agreed Rachel.
But they were prepared to keep going for as long as it takes. Bruno said, “The Work Law will not pass. We can’t let that happen. So we’ll fight to the end.
“That means more strikes, more confrontation. We’ll bring down the government, or even the president, if we have to.”