France: Workers under attack

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against Macron's reforms in Paris

Following the publication of new unemployment data, the bourgeois press in France is celebrating a reduction in unemployment, and the creation of 250,000 private sector jobs in 2017. Hidden behind the figures is increasing insecurity for millions of French workers as Macron’s République En Marche (REM) government continues its efforts to solve the crisis gripping French capitalism at the expense of the working class. Séamus Padraic reports.

On 16 February, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies published provisional unemployment data for the final quarter of 2017. The figures cover those who simultaneously meet three conditions: 1) not having worked a single hour during the week; 2) being available to take a job within 15 days, and 3) having actively sought work in the last month or found work which starts in less than three months. Measured in this way, unemployment had fallen 0.7% since the previous quarter to reach 8.9%, the lowest rate since the first quarter of 2009.

This rosy picture is undermined, however, by the figures kept by Pôle Emploi (PE), the government unemployment agency, which record the number of registered jobseekers across five categories. PE found that the total number of people seeking work increased by 0.7% in the year to November 2017, but the changes were unevenly distributed. Category A, seeking work but not having worked for a month, decreased 0.1% in the year to November 2017. Category D and E, not actively seeking work due to training, illness etc, decreased by 20.7% and 7.7% respectively.

Where, then, have all these job seekers gone? Tellingly, two other categories saw large increases. Category B, active jobseekers who have worked 78 hours or less in the last month, saw a rise of 4.2% in the year, and category C, active jobseekers who have worked more than 78 hours in the month, rose by 9.2%. In other words, in November 2017 there were 2,168,300 people in France in work but who still needed to register as jobseekers in order to get by: 249,000 more than in November 2016. As well as being suspiciously close to the 250,000 new jobs being celebrated in the bourgeois press, this indicates that the jobs into which people are moving are part-time and insecure. In the financial year 2016/17, 86.4% of hiring in France was into temporary jobs; and of these, 80% were into contracts of less than a month. The labour minister Muriel Pénicaud has admitted that 80% of existing job vacancies are for temporary contracts. Hidden behind the euphoria in the bourgeois press over ‘reduced unemployment’ is growing precarity for millions of workers. Worsening conditions also look set to continue following the passage of the new labour code into law on 14 February (see FRFI 258).

The REM government is also pursuing ‘reform’ of unemployment insurance. On 30 October, new rules, agreed in April 2017 by employers’ association Medef and the unions, came into force for three years. The new rules cover more people, but at lower rates. L’Unédic, which regulates unemployment contributions and entitlements, anticipate that in its pilot year, 810,000 people (21% of beneficiaries) will receive less money. 70,000 of these face a loss of 10-30%. Coverage will be extended to so-called ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ - workers in the gig economy. The extension of coverage represents a subsidy to precarious employers. The lowering of the level paid for those at the bottom will act to push the un- and under-employed into jobs with worse pay and conditions.

More changes are in the pipeline. These include increasing ‘control’ of jobseekers. President Emmanuel Macron admires Hartz IV, German legislation which includes an extensive regime of sanctions to discipline jobseekers into taking totally unsuitable work in sectors of the economy looking for cheap labour, and Pénicaud is vocally committed to modifying the sanctions regime.

Medef, the unions and government agreed these new changes on 22 February, and the process of turning them into law began on 2 March. All of the major union federations participated in the negotiations. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) has historic links to the French Communist Party, dating especially from the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ of social-democratic class collaboration after WWII. Its membership reflects this history and is concentrated in industry and manufacturing. The CGT has a deserved reputation for militancy, having been, for example, the leading union federation in the 1995 general strike which defeated the proposed welfare cuts of the new right-wing government. The CGT was centrally involved in 2016’s large but unsuccessful mobilisation against the El Khomri labour law (see FRFI 251).

The CGT called a day of protests outside PE offices around the country on 15 February, arguing that the reforms ‘place unemployment insurance in peril.’ Meanwhile, they attended the negotiations where they attempted to win the concession of a decreasing rate of social security contributions across the period of employment as a deterrent to the use of short contracts. In this they were joined by the other major federation the Democratic Confederation of French Labour (CFDT), which is linked to the Socialist Party (PS), and by the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC). Workers’ Force (FO) which, allegedly at the instigation of the CIA, split from CGT in 1947 over Communist influence, and which is aligned with the PS, joined the managers’ and professional union CFE-CGC in negotiating for the introduction of a bonus-penalty system for businesses which ‘abuse’ short contracts.

The unions signed the agreement on 22 February: an indicator of the weak position they find themselves in compared to 1995, and of the collaborationist line being taken up by these ‘labour lieutenants of the capitalist class’.

Meanwhile strike action and street mobilisations have also taken placed against looming cuts and job losses in the public sector, particularly the rail system, and there have been mobilisations of undocumented migrant workers supported by the CGT.

The context for all the attacks being pursued by the REM government is the crisis gripping the capitalist system. GDP growth in France is weak compared with its major partner, Germany. French capital, recognising that it cannot compete alone against the US and China, is committed to the EU project. For Macron, further integration is ‘the path to real sovereignty’. He advocates the creation of a joint investment budget and a finance minister for the Eurozone, as well as regulation of foreign investment into the EU. Following US President Trump’s new tariffs on solar panels, steel and aluminium, the French state is positioning itself for the threat of a trade war as imperialist rivalries sharpen.

Macron has a close relationship with the new German government, a ‘grand coalition’ between the German Socialist Party, The Christian Social Union and Christian Democrats. Despite internal divisions, this new administration plans to increase powers of detention and deportation of migrants and to reform the Schengen area of ‘free movement’, fine-tuning German and European immigration policy to the needs of capital; a goal shared by France’s REM government. On 12 March, Merkel announced that plans to present joint European initiatives with Macron remained on schedule. She confirmed that Franco-German talks have been spurred by US tariffs.


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