French President Jacques Chirac bowed April 10 to the pressure of millions of students and workers marching across France and withdrew a hated law granting employers the right to fire a young worker at will for up to two years after he or she is hired.
“This is a big victory for the labor movement, for students and youth. This anti-labor law is dead,” said professor Jean Solbes in a telephone interview from his home near Montpellier in southern France. “This is the first time since 1968 we have seen such a big movement of university and high school students. And for the first time in many years, we had a united front of the entire labor movement to defeat it.”
The law limiting the labor rights of youth under age 26 was rammed through with no debate last month by Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who claimed it would reduce France’s chronic double-digit unemployment. But the law ignited street protests of up to 3 million youth and their worker allies. Hundreds of university campuses, high schools, factories, offices and other workplaces were idled by nationwide strikes.
Villepin poured fuel on the protest with his arrogant refusal to meet and discuss the draconian law, claiming it was essential to modernize France and make it competitive in “globalized markets.” Finally, after weeks of rising fury, Chirac was forced to withdraw the law, known as the First Jobs Contract (CPE).
The majority right-wing government initially pushed the CPE through without any debate, Solbes charged. “Villepin has never been elected in his life. He is an agent of the big bourgeoisie. He is very arrogant. The plan was to destroy all labor rights in France.”
Solbes, who participated in the movement and who serves on the higher education committee of France’s largest union federation, the CGT, said the marches, rallies and strikes were “filled with joy and solidarity.” The youth now are less doctrinaire than in 1968 when a similar uprising of students and workers swept France, he said.
“This time we were focused on defeating deregulation and privatization, all the neoliberal policies that strip workers of their rights,” Solbes said. “We are saying: We are human beings. We won’t be treated as objects. Our future is ours, not the property of the big bosses of the transnational corporations.”
Solbes added, “You have to take into account that this struggle came just a few months after French voters overwhelmingly rejected the European constitution. The people saw it as a blueprint for privatization and deregulation. They voted ‘no’ on the constitution, even though the conservatives and the social democrats endorsed it.”
An honorable exception was the French Communist Party (FCP), which campaigned vigorously for the EU constitution’s defeat. The FCP joined with energy and enthusiasm in the fight to defeat this anti-labor law as well. “Now the labor movement, the student and youth movement must maintain their critical independence and keep the pressure on to transform a labor victory into a political victory.”
Although Villepin has denied he harbors presidential ambitions, both he and his rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, have been considered possible successors to Chirac. But polls indicate that Villepin’s approval ratings have plummeted to 25 percent, a drop of 16 points in just the past month. Chirac’s ratings have also fallen to 25 percent.
Sarkozy is hoping to capitalize on their woes. But students in Paris carried a banner that read, “Villepin, we got you … Sarkozy, you’re next!” They also vowed to remain vigilant in their defense of labor rights, with some demanding that a similar law that applies to enterprises with fewer than 20 workers, the CNE, also be scrapped.
Writing in the FCP daily, L’Humanite, Jean Lojkine debunked the corporate media for interpreting the student-worker uprising as a case of “insiders,” older workers who enjoy job security and benefits, against “outsiders,” marginalized younger workers.
“More than two-thirds of the French population are now against the ‘First Job Contract’ law, far more than the ‘excluded’ and the ‘youth,’” he wrote. “The real reason for this widespread mobilization is the rejection of the whole concept of elimination of job security, making people’s lives insecure, from the unskilled to management-level employees. The whole labor force today faces the threat of torn-up collective bargaining agreements, of loss of workers’ rights and loss of social securities.”
Nor is this struggle unique to France, Lojkine continued. “This is happening throughout Europe. The new scheme is often held up in the mass media as the ‘New El Dorado.’ Any talk of the ‘generation conflict’ is therefore only a trap, a firewall masking the rising class struggle. … The ties uniting these groups are much stronger than they were in 1968, partly because of the increased maturity of the student organizations and the linkages … they are making with the demands of labor organizations representing workers.”
He concluded, “All eyes are now on France, less isolated than it has ever been. Didn’t Marx say that France was the nation in which class struggle would ultimately be victorious?”