Growing Labor Protests Paralyzing France
Renaud Lambert of Le Monde Diplomatique says the growing resistance to Hollande’s labor policies is similar to anti-austerity movements in Spain and Greece
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Riot police battled protesters as tens of thousands took to the streets of Paris. Many more protests took place in almost all major cities of France on Thursday. Workers at oil refineries, nuclear power plants, railways, and air traffic control were all on strike. The protest and the strikes are a part of a union and student led movement to oppose the labor law reform that French President, Socialist President I must add, Francois Hollande had implemented by decree in early May. The pro corporate reforms are in the government’s view supposed to decrease unemployment by regulating and deregulating labor market, making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers and to determine their work hours.
Joining us now to help understand these recent development is Renaud Lambert. Renaud is the Vice Editor in Chief at the French Publication Le Monde Diplomatique. Thank you so much for joining us Renaud.
RENAUD LAMBERT: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: So Renaud let’s begin with addressing why the police is being so brutal against protesters. There seems to be some 77 people arrested. What is this severity of militarization on the part of the police is all about?
LAMBERT: Well it’s a very good question and I would like you to get an answer from the government. The only answer I could put forward is that there is massive concern on the side of the government that they will not be able to contain the social movement that they have unleashed. The last time I talked to you on the Real News Network, France was witnessing something quite new, a student movement that we haven’t seen in a couple of years. Now this has bloomed and joined forces with a massive trade union movement and I think people in power are getting pretty scared so they’re sending and asking their police forces to strike strong.
PERIES: So now this particular number of protests that have been going on for about a month which started in early May seemed to me, first of all ridiculous for a Socialist president to start curtailing labor rights in the month of May of all months and of course these protests are now between union workers, students, and against the government. So why is Hollande doing this now and particularly that this is his base that elected him into power and he’s facing an election soon, once again, why’s this taking place right now?
LAMBERT: Well I think again it’s a very good question and I can only guess there are two lines of argument that would explain Hollande’s attitude. Generally, indeed left wing or so called left wing because there is so much left left in this government. But usually they would tend to change gear and veer towards the left one year prior to an election period. I think one has to take into account, the ways of the European Union, the desire to streamline social rights across the continent. It’s happening at the moment in Spain, it’s happening massively in Greece, and France is not immune to this attempt again to destroy a certain way of looking at social rights. That’s the first reason I think that can explain Francois Hollande’s attitude.
The other one is the rise of the National Front. The socialist party might be thinking with the threat of a far right candidate reaching the second round of the elections next year, they will appear to be the only way of impeding them of reaching power. So people won’t so much look at the color of who’s the candidate to fight against the National Front. They’ll just vote for them as long as they are not the National Front. I think they are making a big mistake and I think people are now convinced that we haven’t a socialist government in power. We have a different shade of the same and they are quite unhappy about it.
PERIES: Now one of the things that they must be very unhappy about is the way in which these protests are coalescing so much power. The different unions that come together in combination with the students. Now also that they’re saying that they’re addressing unemployment where in fact this is one of the highest levels of unemployment that the country has had. Some 10% for the regular population and 24% for youth. But they’re the ones out there protesting. So give us the sense of the different forces that are coming together to form the protests that have been going on.
LAMBERT: Well in the streets you still have the students movement that has gathered around [ ] but at this stage, trade unions have taken the lead. So it’s mainly [ ] and [ ] forces. They have the power of blocking the economy and because the government tried to impose a slow by decree, now there is a legislative case for unions to use their power and they still are very powerful in France. The interesting thing is, whereas the right wing media is suggesting that France is being taken hostage by the strikers, seven in ten French people are against the law and six in ten support the people striking.
So a larger and larger fraction of the population is demonstrating, trade unions are more aggressively involved in blocking the economy but the general support including by people who are not striking themselves, is quite massive. I mean it’s difficult to look at what’s happening in France and not think about the 80th anniversary of the 1936 demonstrations that took place in France and were a major moment in the social history of France. That’s when we gained a large number of the rights we still enjoy today and people have that in mind.
PERIES: And also this is very reminiscent of the May 1968 France when students and workers nearly overthrew the government of Charles [Degaul]. What do you think the comparisons are here between the history that you cited and the one I’m talking about as well?
LAMBERT: Well there are comparisons being made but to a large extent the meeting between student forces and labor forces did not happen to the extent that it should have in 1968. I’m not saying it should have but at the moment but definitely there is a sense that the world is dead at the moment and I think that was true in 1968. Young people took to the street to suggest that the old way of organizing the world was not theirs anymore. I think we are witnessing the death of something in France but also in Spain where they cannot organize themselves to find a government. In Greece, where the country is headed for disaster after disaster. In Ireland, where they’re finding it hard to find a government as well. Something has died and something new is trying to be born across Europe.
PERIES: And it’s a very important country, France, because it does set precedent for other countries because France is seen as a country that has protected labor rights for so long. Renaud I thank you so much for joining us today and hope to have you back on a more regular basis.
LAMBERT: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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