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Big victory for workers, students in France

Published Apr 13, 2006 3:04 AM

Mass protests on the streets get results!

Weeks of demonstrations by millions of youth, trade unions and their supporters have forced the French government to back down from a measure that would impose “at will” hiring and firing practices on young people under the age of 26.

The protests shut down schools and disturbed business across the country so much that even Medef, the largest business federation in the country, began to criticize the CPE, or First Employment Contract. If passed, the law would have allowed bosses to engage youth for a two-year contract that could be terminated at any time, without reason.

On April 10, the Elysée Palace issued a communiqué announcing termination of the CPE. Of course, it neglected to mention that the fight-back of workers throughout France was responsible for the law’s demise.

The statement read, “Under the proposal of the prime minister and after having heard the presidents of the parliamentary groups and the officials of the parliamentary majority, the president of the republic has decided to replace Article 8 of the law on equality of opportunities by a mechanism in favor of the professional integration of young people in difficulty.”

Opponents of the law vowed to continue the struggle. Youth and unions have pledged now to fight against a law passed in 2005 that allows the same provisions CPE offered around termination, but only to smaller companies. The CNE, or New Employment Contract, allows employers of fewer than 20 employees to fire their employees at will. Protesters also vow not to back down until new legislation has been passed to help employ youth.

A leader of the Unef student union told Reuters that repeal of the CPE was a “first victory” but that students had other issues that need to be addressed as well. The major trade union confederation (CGT) leader, Bernard Thibault, has also announced that the battle against the CNE must start. He has fixed the traditional May Day demonstrations as the first major test. Workers’ Force (FO), another union federation, has also warned that the CNE is unacceptable.

In a televised address, a chastened Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, until now considered a leading presidential candidate, said, “The necessary conditions of confidence and calm are not there, either among young people, or companies.” The New York Times noted that Villepin’s “sober, subdued demeanor contrasted sharply with his defiant and angry stance in speeches earlier before the Parliament.” (April 11)

An alternative to the CPE was presented the same day to Parliament by senior lawmakers from President Jacques Chirac. While the new proposal will increase guidance and internships for those seeking jobs, its solutions to the problem of youth unemployment—a staggering 23 percent throughout the country, and upwards of 50 percent in the poorer immigrant suburbs—also involve continued givebacks to employers, including financial incentives, temporary subsidies or tax breaks for companies who hire workers under the age of 26.

This victory in France comes at a time when the imperialists throughout Europe are attempting to force neoliberal policies—including the weakening of laws protecting labor rights, an increase in job insecurity and privatization—onto the backs of the European people, offering it as the only option to bring Europe into the 21st century. The struggle against this has been strongest in France, where the people voted in May against a referendum to endorse the EU Constitution.

On May 19 Workers World wrote, “The constitution would strengthen the central authority of the EU..., increase the power of the European-based monopolies against the working class..., increase the police and repressive powers of the European states, and invest more money into the EU’s joint military forces.”

Impact throughout Europe

Now this new triumph of the French working class strengthens the struggles of workers throughout Europe, who are being threatened with similar losses of labor rights and who are also fighting back.

As if warning other capitalist governments about the “problems” of giving too much to the workers, a plethora of articles and editorials have appeared in the corporate newspapers in the U.S. since Villepin withdrew the CPE. These editorials have decried the strength of laws protecting labor in France and the strong working-class resistance to their being weakened.

An editorial in the New York Times says, “A class accustomed to security—those with traditional jobs ending in generous retirement plans—opposes any effort to change the system.”

Others argue that because of the narrow-sightedness of the youth and unions, France will not be able to compete in a “globalized” world.

Another article in the Times describes the situation: “Opponents say the [CPE] will just make it easier for employers to hire cheap, disposable labor and keep young people... turning in an unsteady netherworld of partial employment. That may sound like basic market economics to Americans, but ... France in particular remains devoted to a quasi-socialist ideal.”

No one should think France is a socialist country, but its workers have won through decades of struggle a social program that is among the best in the world. And even this Times article, in condemning the French for holding onto these ideals, admits that France was ranked highest in productivity in 2004 among the Group of 7 industrialized nations, and that the World Health Organization rated its health care system the best among its members.

Nicolas Dheift, an unemployed 29-year-old who has not been able to find steady work in Paris since graduating from college in 2003, told the Washington Post, “I disagree with those who say French young people are lazy and don’t want to work. They want to work, but they want to work the French way—with a 35-hour week and a steady job. People want to be able to plan for the future and think ahead.”

Marches continued to be held on April 11, a day after CPE’s reversal, in celebration of the victory as well as in protest of the CNE—including the blocking of two bus depots by about 100 students in Toulouse, according to Reuters.