French movement escalates to resist new labour law: report from Paris protests

Ian Crosson reports from last weekend’s protests in Paris

Photo: Ian Crosson
Photo: Ian Crosson

Imagine thousands of people occupying Trafalgar Square, every night, for days on end, to discuss how to resist austerity and raising radical issues. Imagine this occupation spreads to every town and city in Britain in just a few days. Well , this is what has happened in France over the last 12 days,  not against a Tory government but a Socialist Party (more like the Labour Party here) led government who were elected promising to protect workers.

A massive and growing movement has been sweeping France in the last few weeks and has started developing new tactics to resist a new serious attack on workers’ rights by the Socialist Party led government of Francois Hollande.

The new labour law (le loi travail) seeks to extend the maximum working week from the present 35 hours per week to up to 46 hours. It will also make it easier for workers to be sacked. The government claim the law is needed to lower the long-lasting high unemployment rate of 10%. It has generated huge anger and has raised issues about what kind of society do we want- do we just want to work till we drop or should we have a better work/ life balance.

There have been massive strikes on a number of days over the last few weeks. The new law was initially aimed at all workplaces but the government was forced to make a concession saying it would only apply to large workplaces. Initially there was support from the Socialist Party led union confederation to resist the hated new labour law but after some concessions they have not supported in more recent strike action. Instead the resistance to the new law has come from younger workers in particular, university students and now school students. The Communist Party led CGT trade union federation and other smaller groups like SUD have also been supporting resistance to the new law.

The movement has been spearheaded by young people who have been incredibly militant. They have blocked roads and rail lines, occupied their universities for weeks and refused to accept the violence of the police. They are sending a clear message that things need to change and that they will not put up with this new law and want a better future on a whole number of issues.

On Saturday I was able to attend a massive demonstration in Paris against the new law. It was a massive demo.  My estimates are around 300,000 – a similar size to the TUC organised demo against the first round of austerity in 2011 in London – although the police claimed 20,000 and the organisers said 120,000.

The largest contingents came from the CGT federation and included workers from different industries. There were a large number of people who were 35 and under on the march but there were also large numbers of older workers too. In many ways, the people in their 20s and 30s are the angriest as youth unemployment is high in France, the cost of housing has increased a lot and they want to see a future – not a future with insecure contracts, debts and the fear of being easily sacked by the boss.

The liveliest part of the march were the students. I met an incredible group of students from Paris 8 university in Saint Denis who had been in occupation for 4 weeks. One of their student leaders said they were hoping to link with groups of workers as they recognise that the key to victory is to increase and escalate the strike action together with students and any other action. She particularly wanted to link with rail workers who have traditionally been one of the most militant group of workers in France and have massive economic power. She said she was hoping to get a general strike called. She told me the occupation were planning more activities this week. A general strike has been called for 28 April, which is good, but she felt this was too long away and that some of the student occupations could not survive that long, that strike action had to start earlier if the students were to maintain their momentum. A blockade of Parliament is also being planned for when the new law will be voted on at the end of April/ early May.

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The movement within the universities has also spread to schools where there have also been walkouts.

At the end of Saturday’s massive Paris march there was no rally in the Place de la Nation which I found very weird, but I learnt that this is the norm on big demos in France. The march ended with some serious confrontations between the hated riot police and several thousand demonstrators who were mostly part of the Black Bloc. The police used tear gas to attack the crowd. Later in the night some banks were attacked near Place de la Republique ((equivalent of Trafalgar Square and the centre of the new Paris Occupy type movement- Nuit Debout)

The French media mainly concentrated on the violence at the end of the demo rather than the huge numbers who were on the demo. There were demonstrations in all the main cities of France on Saturday. In Nantes and Rennes there were serious confrontations with the police.

The fact that there were significant numbers of organised trade unionists on the march means the leaders of the unions are going to feel under more pressure to call and hopefully build and escalate strike action against this massive attack.

Nuit Debout- Occupation of public squares

Since 31 March,  which was a day of big strike action and massive demos, a new tactic was adopted by the movement. It is called Nuit Debout (Rising of the Night). Thousands of people have been gathering in city and town squares across France and in Brussels to debate and discuss the way forward to beat the new labour law. This Occupy type movement made me think of the Indignados movement we saw grow in Spain a few years ago. It is particularly appealing to people who feel betrayed and let down by the Socialist Party government and want people before profit. I arrived in Paris on Friday night and visited the Nuit Debout in the main square of Paris- Place de la Republique. There were about 2000 people there – mostly young people 30 and under. People were sat down and listening intently to different speakers. There was free food being offered, people dancing, chatting, laughing. There were imaginative slogans and artwork all around. There was a LGBTQ section, a section for illegal migrants and refugees. There appeared to be very few political organisations involved. I saw one group having a bookstall but that was it – no obvious Communist Party presence or NPA (New Anti- Capitalist Party).

Where is democracy? Photo: Ian Crosson
Where is democracy? Photo: Ian Crosson

The Nuit Debout movement has spread all across France and is not just an organising centre to build more resistance to the new law, but is also raising other issues- eg the issue of how to deal with terrorist attacks, gender inequality, refugee rights and a more fundamental discussion about what is wrong with capitalism and what kind of society we want.

People’s ideas are changing and they are challenging the power of the market and sexism. I noticed a lot of advertising posters around the Place de la Republique had been torn down or were graffitied over challenging the messages of the adverts.

The Nuit Debout movement is an exciting development and it is hoped that it will continue to grow and increase the strikes, demos and occupations across the country. When I was in Paris last weekend the government and the police seemed to have decided not to try and attack or stop the Nuit Debout movement and I saw no police around the Place de la Republique.

Police attack

However on Monday the police evicted people from Place de la Republique and demolished community gardens, a public library and free kitchens that had been established. In the evening protesters retook the square, but there was a much stronger police presence. On Tuesday police stopped food and sound equipment entering the Place de la République in an attempt to break up the movement, but some tents and supplies were able to get through.

So let’s hope that the Nuit Debout continues to grow and withstand police repression.

Having a huge People’s Assembly demo on Saturday will be a great act of solidarity to the French movement to express our growing anger against the 1% and all their tax-dodging.


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