France: Macron sets out to bust unions

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Since his election French president Emmanuel Macron has been busy taking advantage of the clear majority (350 out of 577) held by his party La Republique En Marche (REM) and its junior partner Mouvement Democratique (MoDem), following the collapse of the major parties after the presidential election. The REM government has set about cutting taxes and attacking the code du travail, France’s extensive set of labour protections, with the president vowing not to yield to ‘the lazy, the cynics, or the extremists’.

The five orders which make up the reforms were signed by the president on 21 September, and should go before the national assembly by 20 November. Their purpose is to gut the power of the unions, which remain relatively strong and principled by European standards. Whereas currently workplace negotiations must involve a union representative, the reform will permit businesses to negotiate with a delegated employee or a ‘committee’ of employees. It will also seriously limit tribunal payouts.

These significant attacks are part of a longer-term strategy laid out by Macron, who wants to emulate the German model, in which select union leaders sit on the supervisory boards of corporations. Unions negotiate cosy deals for the better-paid workers in privileged sectors, while the more precarious workers are left without serious representation. This has deepened the political and economic split in the working class, as part of a process that has furthered the proletarianisation of millions while tying a tiny minority of privileged workers into the management of German capitalism. The number of people in temporary employment in Germnay rose from 300,000 in 2000 to nearly a million in 2016, and the ratio of working poor – earning less than €979 a month – increased from 18% to 22%. 4.7 million workers survive on a maximum of €450 a month. (Le Monde diplomatique, September 2017)

According to the REM government, ‘protection for workers can be better assured through terms negotiated between workers’ representatives and employers’. Clearly this ‘protection’ will only apply to a tiny privileged minority. The El Khomri law, the precursor to the current package of reforms, has given us a glimpse at the kind of ‘protection’ the REM government wants for the majority. Increased ‘flexibility’ in the labour market meant that in the financial year 2016/17 86.4% of hiring was into temporary jobs, and of these 80% was into contracts of less than a month. This is the reality that is hidden in the fall in unemployment from 10.2% in January 2016 to 9.5% in Jul 2017.

Meanwhile, 2018 will see €11bn of tax cuts. The ISF, a modest wealth tax with a maximum rate of 1.5% on assets over €10m (with lots of modifications and exemptions) will be replaced with a property tax, the IFI. This will eliminate 49% of the ISF tax burden: €2bn. There will be further exemptions from the ‘tax d’habitation’, an annual residence tax. Earnings from capital will now be subject only to a flat tax of 30%. 2018 will also see the implementation of measures planned under the Parti Socialiste (PS) government of François Hollande: extending and increasing the CICE, a tax-break for business; and lowering corporation tax to 28%. An OFCE report found that 46% of the gains from the tax cuts will go to the richest 10% of households (those earning more than €37,260 per year), which will pay on average €1,487 less tax per year. The bottom 10% of households (those earning less than €10,770 a year), by contrast, will pay on average just €81 less. These savings will be little consolation, however, as welfare and workers’ rights are attacked. The 50,000 people receiving small amounts of housing aid, for example, will lose every centime of it, constituting a saving for the government of €11m. For many this will be a loss of over €200 a year.

The first major demonstration against the labour reform was on 12 September. According to the ministry of the interior, 223,000 people mobilised across France. According the CGT union, the number was closer to 500,000. These numbers are very similar to the first mobilisations against the El Khomri law last year. The demonstration was called by the CGT and backed by Solidaires, FSU and Unef. Significantly, Force ouvrière, CFDT and CF-CGC did not officially back the demo. Christain Grolier, spokesman for the civil service union UIAFP-FO, told franceinfo that the union would not be backing the demonstration ‘because our members are not affected by the labour law reforms’. 10 arrests were made across France, with one protestor in Paris injured. Police in Paris used tear gas and water cannon.

The CGT called a further day of action for 21 October, attracting similar numbers. Again, Force Ouvrière and other unions did not back the action, preferring a ‘dialogue’ with the government. Individual unions have also called a handful of demonstrations and some strikes in the coming weeks. La France insoumise (FI), party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, held their own demonstration in Paris on 23 September, against what they call the ‘social coup d’état’. Mélenchon has declared that he will dedicate all his energies to defeating the reforms. FI want to appeal to ‘the entire population’; all those who are against ‘the end of the rule of law in matters of labour law.’ Mélenchon said that the reforms concern ‘every French person’. The FI strategy is to seek alliances with such forces as the ‘left’ of the PS. When, for example, on 7 September, Benoît Hamon, PS candidate in the presidential election, announced that he will be at the FI demonstration on 23 September, Mélenchon called this a ‘political moment of primary importance’. The leader of the PS in parliament, Olivier Faure, on the other hand, has stated that they are ‘not demanding the abrogation of the orders, but their improvement’.

‘We are not in the business of rich versus poor,’ announced the office of Economy Minister Bruno le Maire in response. The REM government’s attempts to solve the capitalist crisis at the expense of the working class tell a different story. The task facing socialists in France now is to struggle against these union-busting reforms while fighting to ensure that any victory is not limited to the interests of the labour aristocracy and middle class left.

Séamus Padraic