French President Threatens to Outlaw Protests Against Labor Reforms

The US news has been so dominated by the Orlando shooting, the Jo Cox murder and Brexit vote, and the jousting of the US presidential election, that it’s hard to keep tabs on other important stories. This Real News Network segment gives the latest developments on the labor protests in France.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

France is making headlines for many things these days. Not only is it hosting the European soccer championship, but the tournament has been marred by soccer fan violence inside and outside the stadium. Also, a French citizen claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed a police officer and his partner.

On top of all of this, the labor union protests against the recently passed labor reform continues unabated. Just last Tuesday, tens of thousands took to the streets in Paris and ended up clashing with police. As many as 70 were arrested, and around 40 protesters and police officers were injured. President François Hollande has now threatened to ban demonstrations.

Joining me now to talk about all of this is Renaud Lambert. He’s an editor for the monthly paper Le Monde diplomatique.

Thank you so much for joining us, Renaud.


PERIES: So let’s begin with sort of recapping some of the most recent developments in France with regard to the labor reform that’s going on.

LAMBERT: Sure. Well, at this stage basically there is the social movement and the government are locking horns. Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande have both said that they will not budge. And the trade union movement and the students movement are determined to get the law, the bill, pushed aside.

But it seems that the government is not listening. You know, they forced the bill through Parliament without a discussion, using a special decree law. And they seem not to be paying attention. On the contrary, the strategy they seem to be taking is a strategy of tension on the streets, with a tremendous degree of violence.

PERIES: Now, I understand that President Hollande has threatened to stop or ban demonstrations. Now, is he able to do that?

LAMBERT: Well, we are living in a state of emergency. At the moment pretty much anything is possible.

Now, would it be possible to implement it? First of all, I think it’s interesting to see how they’re justifying this decision. There has been a high degree of violence. But as usual there was tremendous amount of provocation by police forces on the one hand, and on the other hand you have determined groups like black blocs on the streets. And they are in for a struggle.

But what is happening is that the government is saying trade unions are responsible for this violence. It’s basically the same thing as if you were saying football clubs, soccer clubs are responsible for hooligan violence. You know? It doesn’t make sense. But still that is the case they’re making. And they’re saying, well, since trade unions cannot maintain order and peace on the streets, therefore it is our duty to forbid the demonstrations.

But it’s not the responsibility for trade unions to implement peace on the streets. They’re only responsible for pacifying their own side of the demonstration. You know? And one has to wonder who’s gaining from this escalation in violence in a situation where it’s a line of definite criminalization of any denunciation of the way the government is behaving.

PERIES: Now, Renaud, the labor unions in all of this–obviously the labor protests are growing and the movement is growing. But what are they doing? Are they trying to negotiate with the government? How did they respond to the threat of having their protests banned by the president?

LAMBERT: Well, at the moment there are questions about democracy in France. The decree forcing the bill through Parliament is not very democratic, although it’s inscribed in the Constitution. Forbidding demonstrations on the street is not very democratic, although there would be a possibility for the government to pass this.

At the moment the big question is: how long can the trade unions carry on? They’ve been delivering magnificent struggle, I must say. They’ve been very sensible in their behavior. There’s been very little violence if you look at the amount of police forces deployed on the streets.

But there is an element in the trade union movement that intends to negotiate the worst of the 52 articles in the law.

But there is another element–and I would be in favor of this second way of looking at things–which says we have to eradicate everything, because every single of the 52 articles in the law are noxious. They need to be done away with.

But how long can this carry on? The big question was: how is the Euro football/soccer tournament going to weigh on the social movement? And I think it’s not leading people to go home and forget about the bill. People are struggling, and we have two demonstrations planned for next week, two massive demonstrations.

PERIES: Now, Renaud, the main union federation behind the protests is the CGT, which in the past have been aligned with the Communist Party of France. And that is generally considered to be more radical, a more radical union federation. How much support do they have in the struggle right now against the labor reform? And is there a chance that there will be other labor unions joining them and this growing into a bigger struggle than what’s at hand now?

LAMBERT: There are already other unions involved in the movement. It certainly is not a CGT-alone movement. Last Tuesday–you talked about the massive demonstration that took place in Paris. It was indeed probably the biggest since the movement started, although the press has said that there was hardly anyone in the streets. You see on the website, Le Monde‘s website, you see pictures of a couple of people walking on the street. I was there in the demonstration and I can tell you that it was packed.

And so there are other unions. There is Force Ouvrière, there is SUD (Solidaires), students, teachers unions. So there is a broad movement in unions. And I think their determination is heightened by the level of aggressiveness they’re receiving from the government, but from the media as well. I mean, some of the comments that have been made on the media are comparing CGT to ISIS, the terrorist forces. Trade unions are compared to unlawful organizations, criminal organization. And it doesn’t make sense.

People are aware of this and they see that the blockage is coming from government. A couple of weeks ago there were massive queues from people trying to get oil from petrol stations, and people were upset about this. They were annoyed. But if you talked to them, they said, well, the government has to do something. They understood that people were fighting.

PERIES: And what is the response of the student movement to all of this? Now, I know one of the reasons [incompr.] they’re protesting is because of the economic conditions and the levels of unemployment. We talked about this before. And they’re now, of course, have joined all these trade unions. What are the most recent developments there, as far as the convergence between the student movement and the labor movement?

LAMBERT: The convergence was efficient. It took place a couple of weeks ago. And when Nuit debou, the student movement I talked about on your program a couple of months ago now, was slowing down, then the trade unions movement picked up. And now the students are taking part in the demonstrations.

But it is a more traditional trade union movement in France at the moment. I think, in much of the same way as Occupy Wall Street planted seeds in the U.S. political landscape or [inaud.] Occupy, indignados in Spain did, I think seeds have been planted in France. And now we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks, months, perhaps years to see a translation, a political translation. There are a lot of organizations being born, being created, and dying all in the same day, all in the same week. There are plenty of things happening on the political front. But this struggle against the law now is mainly led by trade unions.

PERIES: Alright, Renaud. Thank you so much for joining us and giving us this update. And we hope to have you back very soon.

LAMBERT: Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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  1. Barmitt O'Bamney

    Sweeping aside existing labor protection law by executive diktat wasn’t authoritarian enough for Hollande. In case there were any Frenchmen left clinging to the dream that they could have a liberal democracy -or their own country- within the EU capitalist dictatorship, there certainly shouldn’t be any now. Nor should there be any more dozing dreamers left anywhere else inside the EU’s Iron Curtain. Your move, Britain – choose wisely.

    1. clinical wasteman

      Just a weary reminder: one of the main things the Brexit campaigners dislike about the EU is that they think it locks in too much protection for workers in general and unions in particular. They especially detest the notional restriction of working hours to 48 a week.
      In practice, of course, no such protection exists: office cleaners, warehouse operatives, store clerks and so on are more likely to be working 80 hours in two or three ‘zero-hours’ jobs. But reality doesn’t alter the fact that successive British governments have tried to negotiate exemptions on labour and welfare rights of all kinds, and once rid of this imaginary ‘bureaucracy’ they would be ‘free’ to finish what Thatcher started.

    2. Stein

      Uhm, except this has nothing to do with the European Union and everything to do just with France. French economy has been struggling for the last 30 years. There is a very significant unemployment. Hollande has said he will not present himself at the Presidentials, if he does not get the numbers lower. Whether this is the right measure or not, whether this is the right way of implementing it or not, that has nothing to do with the EU.

      In my opinion, ofc I may be wrong or just a bit conservative but, there is no other way about it. Hollande is from the left – so it’s incredibly difficult to pass a necessary bill, when the bill is leftist. Because his own party will not support him and the right wing will orally agree, but still make life difficult. They tried to negotiate and the parliamentary members just destroyed any negotiation – they introduced thousands of amendments (literally) to bury the Government in documents. This is why the government is using 49 (3) so often – because they are a center-right progressive government in a leftist party in France.

      As to content – in France the maximum hours of work per week are 35. They are widely not respected. Almost nobody works 35 hours, except in government service. Even if they are, this is too little in a globalized world. The trente glorieuses (30 years of economic progress) are and have been over for more than a generation. This cannot go on.

      But at the same time, the French people are angry and have a right to be angry. They currently earn less for working more and the reply of their leftist government is “well, we will reduce your workers’ rights now”. So I understand the movement. Sady though, their propositions (to make a working week of 32 or 30 hours, so that more people are hired) make no sense.

      That is why I still think that the law is, overall, the only step France can take to improve its economy.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You are misframing the problem. The 35 hour work week was the result of a lack of sufficient domestic demand. What is needed is much more deficit spending, but the fact that France does not have its own currency and Mastrict rules prevent that. Infrastructure spending produces $3 of GDP growth for every dollar spent. It’s hugely productive but the Eurozone austerity hairshirt stands in the way of a readily available remedy.

        The West has suffered from wide-spead under-investment by companies and governments since the later 1990s. In some countries, too much unproductive household borrowing, in the form of housing bubbles, made up the slack for a while.

        1. Stein

          That’s a very interesting piece of information. Thank you.

          Also, I’m not sure to what extent the 3% are a real constraint anymore, since the EU has said it’s okay for Spain and Italy. (Some said the 3% concept died.) France refused to implement it after November as well (albeit admittedly for other reasons).

          1. rickc

            Stein and YVes I had a question. In regards to the french economy i did a quick check and learned that France’s labor Force Participation rate is around 56%. In the US it is around 63%. My question is..If 44% of the labor force is not actually working how does the country survive? I mean how does 44% of the population pay their bills?
            For that matter how do so many of these European nations survive with such low labor force participation?

  2. kj1313

    LOL considering the History of France I doubt the protesters will even blink at Hollandes new edict and will take it as a challenge instead. But now they know they can’t work with him.

    1. fds

      France isn’t what it used to be. The CCCP recedes from memory; as in every first-world country, the men become more docile; there is a burgeoning third-world population that has no experience with democracy or working class politics.

      1. clinical wasteman

        Actually there’s a case to be made that “third-world populations” had as much as anyone to do with inventing modern democracy (the unfinished project, not the reality TV show with police powers) and working class politics. See CLR James, The Black Jacobins, and for that matter CLR James passim. Susan Buck-Morss (in Hegel in Haiti) documents the influence of the Haitian revolt on European ‘bourgeois revolutionaries’, but more important is the point James makes that the Caribbean slave plantation was the closest thing to a concentrated industrial workforce that the world had ever seen in the 1790s. He adds that the plantations were largely managed at day-to-day level by skilled slave labour, which not only meant they were easily sabotaged or destroyed by slaves when the time came, but also that the self-emancipated slaves’ experience of tightly disciplined, logistically complex self-organization allowed them to form armies that trounced and astonished France, Britain (which suffered more casualties in the Caribbean than in the “Napoleonic” European skirmishes of the same few years), Spain, the USA and France again.
        Yes we know what happened next (and again and again elsewhere), and no it doesn’t diminish any of this one jot, because what happened is just the bloody, ongoing revenge of the historical 0.1% that hasn’t been finished off yet. (Come to think of it, the extortionate ‘compensation’ settlement imposed on Haiti by the US and France on behalf of world powers at large, which was still ‘owed’ well into the 20th century, probably served as a prototype for institutional financial looting ever since. Another would be the military ‘debts’ incurred by the new Greek nation-state of the 1830s for the privilege of getting a Bavarian king imposed in place of an Ottoman viceroy.)

  3. afisher

    France is hopefully learning the lesson that what a government says that they are doing in response to a national emergency, aka the Paris attack, should be extraordinarily time limited. Each time a government says that the state of emergency will be extended to near indefinitely, know that government abuse is sure to follow.

    1. rickc

      matter of fact afisher that is what happened in EGYPT backed in the 1980’s. Emergency laws were put in place after Sadat’s assasination. Mubarek gained near absolute power, critics were tortured, silenced and killed, guys like Ayman Al Zawahari(whose club brought us 9/11 among other atrocities) emerged radicalised, and those temporary laws were in place 30+ years later when the regime finally fell.
      Great to see liberal democracies turning to places like Egypt for guidance in how to deal with the riff raff

  4. kj1313

    Perhaps Hollande should remember his country’s history but ah well this neoliberal stooge will shocked when things don’t go as planned as the protesters ramp up.

  5. DJG

    Vive la France. And, Yves, I would mention that one of the reasons that we in the U S of A don’t hear much about French social and labor developments is that France represents alternatives. The French health-care system is the best in the world, and we could have the same if we made an effort. The French day-care system has been held up as a model. (Yes, the French can be disagreeable, mainly among themselves–Americans who complain that they weren’t treated “nicely” have never seen French quarreling among themselves.)

    And the principle of laicité deserves consideration in the U S of A, where we allow religious groups to get away with all kinds of invasion of the public sphere in the name of Freedom to Believe (Anything).

    But what the U.S. elites worry about is freedom fries (rightwing) and Vuitton (leftwing).

  6. David

    Simply put, the French government has two problems. First, it thought that it could continue to push neoliberal economic reforms in principle forever, and has been genuinely surprised at the depth of opposition from ordinary people. But Hollande and Valls have so much personal credibility tied up in the Law El-Khomri that to withdraw it would be political suicide. Thus (and in spite of the kind of thing that appeared in Liberation) there are tentative contacts taking place between the unions (the CGT but also the FO) to see what they will accept. The most likely outcome is a law which has effectively no substance bit lets the government escape politically. Even that, though, will probably have to be rammed through parliament using Article 49(3) of the Constitution, which converts it into a vote of confidence – i.e. if the government loses there’s an election.
    But if that were all there were, there would be no need to talk of banning demonstrations. The fact is that the country has been on an effective war footing since November, and the forces of order can’t continue to operate at this level forever. (I’m not sure if the brutal murder of a policeman and his partner last week was covered by the media in the US or not). They are having to cope with Euro 2016, including widespread hooliganism, the after effects of the floods and of course the continuing threat of attacks (there are rumors circulating in the francophone media in Europe of more attacks being prepared). The demonstrations could normally be managed, but have been hijacked by anarchist groups (the so-called “breakers” or “casseurs”) who are out for a fight with the forces of order and enjoy smashing things. (They attacked a children’s hospital on Tuesday, perhaps thinking it was a bank, with all that glass. I saw the debris). The government has claimed that the trades unions (and by extension all opponents of the LEK) are somehow responsible for not controlling the casseurs, which, of course, is the government’s job. But police trades union officials have quietly been making it clear that their members are not going to die to defend banks: they will intervene only to protect lives.There are more demonstrations planned for next week, and I think there is a widespread fear that the government will lose control of the streets, at least temporarily. Anything could then happen. The irony, of course, is that banning demonstrations will antagonise ordinary people, but won’t have any effect on the casseurs at all.
    PS spelling checker keeps changing “casseurs” to “masseurs.” It just did it again. That tells you something.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > police trades union officials have quietly been making it clear that their members are not going to die to defend banks: they will intervene only to protect lives.*

      It can’t happen here. Or not? Thanks for the comprehensive update.

      * Perhaps like the French army mutinies of 1917? Where the troops made it clear they would no longer go “over the top,” though would defend France from attack? But with no British Army to pick up the slack, and no Petain to restore morale and discipline…

  7. David

    Posted earlier in a slightly different form but was put into moderation for some reason, and then deleted.

    The French government has two basic problems. One is that they thought they could ram through yet another neoliberal reform without serious opposition, and have been genuinely surprised at the reaction. But Hollande and Valls have so much at stake politically that retreat would be suicidal. As a result (and in spite of the Liberation article) there are discreet talks taking place between the government and the unions to try to find a compromise. The most likely outcome is that the law will be voted, but will be effectively empty of any substance. Even that, however, will probably require the law to be rammed through under article 49(3) of the Constitution, which will turn it into a vote of confidence – ie if the government loses, there will be an election. In addition, the country has effectively been on a war footing since last November, and it’s not clear how long the forces of order will actually be able to cope. As well as Euro 2016, with its significant hooligan problem, there’s the after-effects of the floods, and of course the ever-present possibility of more attacks, being predicted at any moment according to rumours in the Belgian press. (I’m not sure if the brutal killing of a policeman and his wife last week was covered in the US media). Even then, the authorities could probably cope with the demonstrations, which, though very large, are peaceful. But they have been infiltrated on a very large scale by anarchists (the famous “casseurs”) who are out for a fight and to smash things. Last Tuesday they attacked a children’s hospital, possibly thinking that, with all that glass, it was a bank. I saw the debris). Police trades union leaders have been quietly making it clear that their members are not going to die to protect banks, and will intervene only if lives are threatened. More demonstrations are planned for next week, and people are beginning to fear that the government could lose control of the streets, at least temporarily. Almost anything could then happen.
    The government has been making political capital out of all this by claiming that the trades unions should be able to control the casseurs (which of course they can’t) so the violence is their fault, and the fault of anyone who opposes the law. The proposal to ban demonstrations is a sign of fear and exhaustion, as much as anything, but ironically the casseurs are the last people to take any notice of such a ban.

    1. Massinissa

      I don’t have anything constructive to add, but I want to say your article is very enlightening, thank you so much.

    2. Stein

      I hope they will not butcher the law. The French economy cannot go on like this. I respect those who protest (at least those who do not break), but they have to realize the world is not French anymore. There have been half-reforms going on every year since 2010 in labour law. Sometimes twice per year. Books for labour law get updated yearly, yet they are outdated the moment they come out. This has not helped for stability and the half-reforms have not helped thus far. France needs change, but not a leftist change (because there is nowhere to the left to go anymore).

      If Hollande was in UMP, he would be just as much attacked, but applauded at least by the right-wing. That’s the more fundamental problem of this government.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        How can you argue for the law and deny the right to domestic self-determination? Why do you accept this false premise of needing to crush workers to be a net exporter, when in fact it is impossible for every country to be a net exporter?

        1. Stein

          I don’t see how my comment is against self-determination. I’m not saying that the French can’t decide for themselves. I am saying that the French should decide according to a globalized world, because they are not alone anymore.

          Also, I agree absolutely for the principle of not having to crush the worker. I am in a sector which is outside labour law and in which people working after midnight is not uncommon.

          That being said, I find that the law provides flexibility – to augment the amount of hours but only if it is either authorized by an administrative entity or if there is a collective contract (negotiated with the syndicates) + either way, an increase in the workload (therefore, it cannot be permanent).

          The increase in the workload is 10 hours a day and, in exceptional circumstances, cannot go above 12 hours even then. I remind you that working in France is defined as “not resting” – which means as soon as you go to work. (Travelling is not working; but eating lunch is working.) I also remind you that as proposed, the week cannot exceed 48 hours a week (so in reality, it’s not 5 days * 10 hours, but less).

          And you might say: that’s still too much. Yes, it’s a lot. But it reflects better reality than the current law does. Some people are already working from 9 to 19 (which is 10 hours) and sometimes, to 20, 21 (which is 12 hours). But they are getting paid for 35. And if a company needs its workers to work some weeks 60 hours – of course, it makes them work 60 hours even today – but the workers don’t get paid for it. I find this unjust and I think if we could make more flexible laws, maybe employees will finally get some benefits from working the long hours they already pull off.

          Then again, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just young or that I come from a different country (I never liked the 35 hours to begin with, as well as the “not working on Sundays”). I admit, I don’t have kids, which might be a factor, and I’m full of energy.

          Finally, even though I disagree with you, I’m thankful for your comments, as neither economy nor labour law/management is my specialty. So thanks for providing a different point of view.

  8. Schofield

    A significant portion of the French people remain ultra-social and regard the Neo-Liberalism of Hollande as a pernicious virus of greedy individualism. The question is uncertain whether the protest against Neo-Liberal authoritarianism will gain more widespread support than the 1968 student protest which failed to pick up enough support from trade-unionists and other disaffected members of French society. Perhaps the protest will gain sufficient momentum to see Hollande flee the country or end up swinging from the Eiffel Tower. Should matters reach such a state it presages the ousting of Neo-Liberal elite control of the EU or the break up of the EU with a new French government opting to leave. Brexit supporters may or may not regret their vote.

    1. Synoia

      Brexit supporters may or may not regret their vote.

      Brexit voters will be oppressed by Europe if the stay in the EU, or continue to be oppressed by the British Ruling Class (who have more to fear, because they live in Britain).

      In addition a Labor Government would not be bound by the EU, although they would potentially be bound by the IMF as Wilson’s (Labor) government was in the ’60s or ’70s.

      1. Schofield

        One of the problems for human beings is their biogenic/cultural legacy of thinking small in regard to their ultra-sociality. Who should be thought of as a group-insider or outsider. Given the history of wars within Europe the notion of a European Union seemed to be an advance. It may well be, however, given the multiplicity of languages and the communication barriers this entails too early in human development to stand a chance of succeeding. Perhaps with technological improvement in virtually instantaneous translation through cell-phone, wrist or necklace devices communication will cease to be an impediment and irrational economic, monetary and political ideology propagated by greedy/socio-pathic elites the main obstacle to expanding ultra-sociality. Given an increasingly polluted planet extended incorporation would appear to be preferable to retreat into isolationism. For example:-

        1. Massinissa

          The problem with the idea of global governance though, is the people in one region have even less say in whether the government is tyrannical or not than with a smaller regional government. How do you prevent a global government from being an imperialistic entity?

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            No easy answers but in general one would contemplate an articulated structure of world government with the global level reserved only for global issues (global capitalism, climate change, etc) but at the same time an emphasis on decentralization as much as possible. Subsidiarity is the term used in the EU but I think it has developed negative connotations.

            The key governance challenge we face is that we effectively have global corporations but no equivalent governments, unions or civil society structures to effectively govern them. An alternative possibility would be renationalizing corporations, but it’s not clear to me that putting that genie back in the bottle will be easier than crafting global governance mechanisms.

            I can’t help but think that if extraterrestrial intelligent life was discovered, the idiocy of governing our planet with nation-states would become blatantly obvious.

        2. perpetualWAR

          Anyone buying flooring made in China beware. Ive known of this issues with Chinese wood products and laughed that the flooring industry was promoting bamboo flooring as being “green.” The only thing green will be you and ur family should you install this crap. Go with wood plank installation installed by a old, good reputation wood floor installer. That’s the end of that.

          1. jrs

            Yes well what good does that do anyone exposed to it who didn’t buy it, the renting population. Get a place with carpet I guess but then maybe that’s toxic as well and anyway much of the time renters can’t be choosers.

      2. John k

        Imf only if gov borrows in foreign currency. All debts in pounds can be instantly paid (in pounds.)

  9. Alex morfesis

    French president threatens to outlaw freedom…because he is such a man who cares about just us…I mean justice…perfect example, his “brother in law” george…when Royal blew up that greenpeace vessel in new zealand …and that pereira guy just had the nerve to drown and died…how dare that photographer be on the vessel when the second bomb was detonated…did he not get the message with the first explosion ??

    and Hollande spoke up..

    or maybe not exactly…

    well…viva la france…

    one must think of the good of the country…pesky little freedom lovers are simply not understanding how things are and will always be…

    The suits may change, but the reality stays the same…

    2 million sunsets later…

    1. Alex morfesis

      Oops…gerard…not george royal…the brother of hollande’s childrens mother…gerard royal blew up the greenpeace vessel in new zealand…there is no george….

      1. clinical wasteman

        Royal, Mafart, Prieur (I forget the other names of the ones who physically did it), but also the DGSE and the ‘Socialist’ administration of Fabius, Mitterand et al. I saw the wreckage every day in Auckland harbour in 1985.

  10. David

    An opinion poll yesterday showed that 60% of French people essentially support the demonstrators against the law (the details are behind a paywall). So far, demonstrations planned for 23 and 28 June (when the Senate is considering the draft law) are going ahead.

  11. JimTan

    France’s Labor Laws are old and likely in need of reform. That said, easing these Labor Laws now will benefit companies looking for cheap labor. This is likely a major interest pushing its implantation. Unlike the U.S., I think France (and many European countries) historically have had a limited pool of ‘cheap’ illegal immigrant labor. The current migrant crisis throughout Europe is changing this. A professor at the London School of Economics recently addressed the subject:,-says-new-LSE-research.aspx

    My guess is migrants will reshape many aspect of European economies, shifting wage negotiating power in favor of companies.

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