Protesters in France have dubbed port town Le Havre as the “capital of the strike” against the Labour-type government’s proposed Work Law. Striking oil workers at the port have cut off crucial fuel supplies at a key choke point for French capitalism.
With its sprawling refinery complex, Le Havre is one of France’s main sources for oil imports.
Mathias Jeanne, the local CGT union secretary, has been picketing the Cim oil terminal. He told Socialist Worker, “No more boats are coming into the depots, which means we’re not sending a drop to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
“The strike here really has consequences.”
Refinery workers in Le Havre were key to starting petrol shortages last month. Thierry Defresne is the CGT rep at the Total oil refinery, where workers have been striking for over two weeks.
He told Socialist Worker, “The strike had an immediate effect. People know prices will go up so they rush to fill up and then they’re afraid it’ll run out.”
President Francois Hollande’s government rushed in police to break up road blocks at oil depots and bosses desperately fought to source more fuel.
This eased the shortage, but most refineries are still shut and the strikes are putting them under immense strain.
Thierry explained, “The situation has been stabilised because Total has now got 1,000 tankers on the road every day, instead of the usual 300.
“But some of the depots are drying up without the refineries supplying them, so Total has to bring produce in from further and further away.
“It’s logistically very difficult for them—and the losses run into the tens of millions of euros every day.
“To hurt them you have to hit them in their wallets—and that’s what we’re doing.”
Bosses haven’t been taking it lying down and there have been tense standoffs between them and workers.
The government ordered the Cim bosses to let some fuel through, but the CGT withdrew safety cover in response.
Now a small number of scabs live under siege on the site, knowing they won’t get back in past the picket line if they leave.
Workers warn that this strikebreaking could have deadly consequences. Mathias said, “When we’re working there are 30 people per shift, but there’s just 17 of them around the clock.
“It’s a huge site—and the fuels in those silos aren’t exactly chocolate! They are putting the whole population of Le Havre at risk.”
Outside the Total refinery stand the burnt remains of a statue. It was destroyed by the bonfire that workers lit to stop strikebreaking on Friday 27 May.
Worker Benjamin Desjardins told Socialist Worker, “We have an understanding with the bosses that no lorries come in or out whenever there’s a strike. But they tried to send out 300 lorries to Paris.
“That would have been really bad for us and the media would have used it to make it look like we’d started the refinery back up again”.
For eight hours workers held firm and blocked the refinery entrance. “In the end they had to give up and respect the strike conditions,” said Benjamin.
“Now they are trying to do it again, but this time without us finding out.
“So we’re holding a meeting with the workers at the petrochemical plant across the road to discuss a joint strategy.”
The oil workers have been at the forefront of the fight in recent weeks, but they are part of a larger revolt. Benjamin said, “I’ve been on strike a few times in recent years, but this time there’s a bit more of a groundswell.
“People are starting to realise what’s at stake—and you can see on the demonstrations how motivated they are.
“They’re angry at the government over this new law, and they’re sick of their living conditions in general.”
Benjamin said there was a “groundswell of solidarity”.
He said, “We’re fighting for ourselves, but we’re also fighting for everyone.
“There are people who can’t strike themselves but who support us, who beep their horns, who bring food or money. There are polls suggesting three quarters of the population are against the Work Law.
“There’s a lot of poverty and unemployment in France, and these are people who have already been suffering for several years.”
No one is more aware of this than workers and patients at Le Havre hospital. Around a third of its workers have joined “Hospital on our feet” assemblies, launched out of the Nuit Debout (“Night on our feet”) movement of square occupations.
Sud union lead health and safety rep Frederic Le Touze told Socialist Worker, “There’s a lack of funding for staff.
“There’s a lack of funding for equipment right down to sheets and blankets. You’ve got patients sleeping on mattresses on the floor, or in converted offices.”
The departure of two doctors nearly meant one psychiatric unit was closed, though their campaign stopped this.
But their fight doesn’t stop with defending health services.
The big public sector unions have largely stayed out of the fight against the Work Law, which mainly targets the private sector. Mobilising them could make a huge difference.
Frederic explained, “As trade unionists we’re seeking to make the links. We’re trying to show colleagues that the Work Law does affect them.
“Even if the majority are currently employed by the public sector, more and more are being privatised and for them the Work Law’s provisions apply straight away.
“Politicians of both right and centre left want to attack public services, and in the long term the measures in the Work Law will all be applied to the public sector.
“And it’s all part of a neoliberal politics of destroying the rights we’ve won.”
There’s a limit to the repression and hardship that workers in a few key sectors can stand up to alone—spreading the action is crucial.
Thierry said, “We’ve been saying from the start that refinery workers on their own can’t force the government to repeal this law.
“We need other sectors to join the fight. Only all together can we make the government yield.”
Frederic agreed, “I think it’s possible to win.
“So far we’ve not put all our forces into the battle—there are still key sectors that could get going.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that laws have been passed but never been applied.”
Matthias said, “In capitalism it’s about the balance of power.
“As long as the workers are out in the streets, as long as we have strikes, it’s us who decides what happens. It’s up to the people, not the people with the money.”
‘The rights our ancestors fought for are at stake’
Workers in France have fought for rights—not least in Le Havre, a stronghold of the movement—for over a century.
Now they are fighting to defend the Work Code that enshrines those rights in law.
Benjamin said, “We’re striking against the Work Law, which contains dozens of pages of measures that would massacre the Work Code we have today.
“It turns the current values on their head—worse local agreements will be able to override the national Work Code.
“Instead of the minimum guaranteed, it will become the maximum.
“That means so many gains will disappear—whether it’s paid leave, overtime rights, wages, time off, the limit on the hours young people can work.”
Organised workers in big industries are among those with the most to lose.
Thierry said, “Today workers in the oil sector benefit from a good collective national agreement. They can’t stand the idea of having it wiped out.”
The government argues that the Work Law will boost employment.
But by making it easier to sack some workers and make others work longer, it allows bosses to keep their workforce to a minimum.
Benjamin said, “It creates an enormous risk for us and for society—and also for employment.
“The truth is, this isn’t what creates jobs.”
The other big lie is that attacks on workers are about “modernising”.
Some measures in the Work Law would roll back workers’ rights to the level they were last at over 80 years ago.
Thierry said, “All the rights we’ve won through our national agreement are the fruits of big struggles by our ancestors.
“That’s what’s at stake in this fight—holding onto those gains.”
‘Workers are democratic —unlike our government’
Police in Le Havre have held off from attacking protesters or strikers because the dockers’ union threatened to shut down the docks in response.
Cops used water cannons to clear a road block at a refinery at Fos-sur-Mer in the south.But in other areas the repression has been brutal.
But this can backfire on the state. Thierry said, “When you use force like that, it shows you have no chance of convincing anyone and only want to shut up the social movements.
“Each time it’s led to a multiplication of blockades or of strikes.
“One refinery that hadn’t started striking went out spontaneously after police attacks on blockades of three depots.
“So it’s been a very bad method for the government, because they’ve been doing our work for us.”
The Work Law only got through the lower house of the French parliament because Hollande suspended parliamentary debate.
“That was really the straw that broke the camel’s back—it really got workers angry and it’s the reason there are picket lines here now,” said Mathias.
“We’d been holding partial strikes since 9 March, but we went up a level after that. Now we’re really going hard at it with indefinite strikes.”
Hollande used the notorious article 49.3 of the French constitution—something he once denounced as a “denial of democracy”.
Mathias said, “We can’t accept the 49.3, even if it is in the constitution. We elect MPs.
“It’s not right that they can’t debate the law and vote.
“In the union when we go for a strike we get workers together and hold a vote—that’s a difference between us and the government.”