France’s Parliament Deals Major Blow to Labor
French PM fast tracks bill that radically changes collective bargaining practices, leading citizens to take to the street and pressure a vote for his ouster
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Washington.
France and the US just got a little bit closer–in labor law, that is. This week, the French parliament passed a controversial labor law which would change the way labor contracts are negotiated.
Before the vote, collective bargaining was between industries and workers. So, for example, all companies in the automobile industry would have to negotiate terms with unions that also were in the automobile industry.
But now, things have changed. There is something called company-specific negotiations, meaning French automaker Peugeot would now be able to negotiate terms with Peugeot workers individually.
This has caused quite a controversy in France. Unions, students and other groups have been protesting since April, and they say this new law would be a big blow to labor and everyday people.
Now joining us is one of the protesters and our guest today, Yasser Louati. He is a French human rights and civil liberties activist and researcher, and he joins us now from France. Thanks so much for being with us, Yasser.
YASSER LOUATI: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Yasser, as I was saying in the intro, we have unions, students, organizations, even far [right] and left-wing politicians really against this new labor law. But folks didn’t even get a chance to debate this law because the prime minister issued sort of, I would compare it to kind of like a fast-track vote on this law.
So, before we get into the why, why this law didn’t get a debate and why people are against it so, I want to understand the interests behind the law, and where does the EU factor in when it comes to this narrative?
LOUATI: I mean, the EU dream is over. We know. We invented the EU to be a social entity, to work for the interests of the common people, but now the European Union is more working for the interests of big corporations, big money and the finance industry more than citizens of the European Union.
So, what’s happening today is that every single measure that was protecting employees in France, things we acquired from back in as early as the ’40s and ’50s and even the ’60s, is now being deconstructed and destroyed in favor of big money and the corporate sector.
What you see today happening in France is that people are not only marching against the law, what they call the labor reform or the Loi El Khomri. That’s just because they are scared. You know, unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, as high as back in 1997, and we have a government that is showing complete disdain for the people themselves, where you have Manuel Vallas using what you just called the fast track or the 49-3. It shows that the prime minister does not care. He will pass this law whether people agree on it or not, including within his own government and the parliament itself.
DESVARIEUX: Can you be more specific, Yasser? You said that it’s really hit labor really hard. Can you be specific and talk about what it actually does?
LOUATI: I mean, France has been known for decades as this country protecting the rights of employees, but this dream is over again with thanks to the European Union.
For instance, this law, for example, calls for the reducing of overtime compensation, reducing legal protection for employees, increasing the powers of employers and the corporate sector, capping compensation when unduly fired. Employers get more control over [working time modulation]. Companies can undergo redundancy plans without any justification and [inaud.] Pierre Gattaz, head of the MEDEF, which is France’s biggest employers’ union, he wants to be able to fire people without justification.
And he even goes beyond that, saying that this reform, called the labor reform, Loi travail or Loi El Khomri, won’t help against unemployment. It is just giving more protection and more advantages and privileges to the rich and powerful.
DESVARIEUX: But wait, Yasser, some people might say, hold on. This structure, yes, it might not be in France’s history in modern history, but it is a structure that resembles something that we have in the United States, and some people might say it’s not terrible, because you have workers and companies that can come together individually and sort of tailor their contracts to that individual company. What do you say to folks like that, who say this structure isn’t all bad?
LOUATI: [inaud.] My first job was to work as a captain in business education, and I’ve met many, many people in many countries, and everybody, you know, says the US is not the example to follow. But what’s happening today in France, yes, a neoliberal turn has been taken, you know, to protect the privilege of companies, to give them more flexibility, less accountability. Well, let’s say, for example, in 1983 [France], you know, contributed to world GDP as high as 4.4 percent. Today our contribution, after al these neoliberal measures, this flexibility and giving more protection to companies, we are down to 2.5 percent.
In the meantime, unemployment is back to 3.5 million unemployed people, and that means at least 6 million people in France are living below the poverty line. So, I don’t think that’s progress. I think that’s class warfare with a vengeance.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the repression against the protests. It’s been quite fierce. More than two thousand people have been arrested. You’ve been involved in organizing all of this. Can you just tell us a little bit about the government repression, and what is the future for this movement now that we have the parliament that’s voted in favor of the law?
LOUATI: This bloody crackdown against the social movements is just a case of chicken coming home to roost. The political violence that went unchecked by our elites and even the everyday people and that was celebrated against Muslims, Romas and Black people in France, is now being applied against union leaders, environmentalists and every single person who disagrees with the government.
One of the biggest symbol here in this movement is that on May 13, right as the movement was gaining momentum, the minister of interior, Mr. Bernard Cazeneuve, said that they were receiving new rifles. How big of a symbol? People are marching to get jobs and protect the future of their kids, and your first thing, the first thing you think about is to get more rifles and to crack down even further against union leaders and marchers.
When you look at how these marches were brutally targeted, we even had helicopters throwing tear gas on innocent people. We had people losing their eyes, people getting beaten. We had undercover policemen showing up in the middle of the crowd and randomly beating down people and without being held accountable.
So, this shows that the government applied its measures against Muslims in the aftermath of the November attacks, and since those measures were deemed acceptable because those people don’t count and they have less rights, well guess what? What goes around comes around, and what I hope for is that my fellow comrades marching against the law stand together and [understand] that the common interest is not fighting one another but to fight for the common interest, and the common interest is to have secure jobs for ourselves and for our kids.
We can’t explain, for example, that we can cap compensation for workers but not for CEO paychecks, even when they bring their companies straight into the wall. For example, 44 billion dollars were given in subsidies to companies and they were supposed to hire one million people. Not one [inaud.] was hired, and Pierre Gattaz himself said, well, I’m sorry. I didn’t promise anything.
DESVARIEUX: When was that, Yasser?
LOUATI: A couple of months ago. The CIC was adopted about a year and a half or so, but a couple of weeks ago Pierre Gattaz, when he was questioned about his lack of commitment for getting the money without returning the favor by employing people, he said, oh well, you can’t buy jobs, I promised [inaud.]
DESVARIEUX: I got you. So, where are we in this process right now? It’s true that President Hollande now has to sign this law for it to become law, this bill, I should say, for it to become law. So, what are you and your fellow comrades, as you say, are going to do between now and then?
LOUATI: Call me a radical, but this calls for regime change. Because this law being passed today was proposed 10 years ago under Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. So, these new laws keep coming back every 5 or 10 years, and as long as governments don’t work for the interests first of the voters and then for everybody in this country, we have governments working on behalf of banks, big companies, even for the interests of Goldman Sachs and international corporations.
What needs now to be done is for the social movement not only to stand firm, but to continue pushing against the government. Even if the president signs this bill, we cannot accept that our government that was elected on promises to protect employees and [inaud.] to target the invisible enemy, it called the finance sector, and then see ourselves not only being fooled as voters but then being spent as disposable resources for big companies.
So, right now the struggle continues, and even if the president signs it, it means nothing, because right now the election is coming in less than a year, and we have to prepare for this upcoming election in about 11 months from now.
DESVARIEUX: No, when you say it means nothing, for some people they’d say it means everything, because isn’t that going to affect everyday people, like, immediately?
LOUATI: I think the way our governments work, especially here in the West, you know, state officials only understand [inaud.] They only vote against the strongest. Right now, who is strong is the big interests. The banking sector, the MEDEF, the employer federation, et cetera, but now the government will have to push itself.
If people continue to march in the streets, keep, you know, questioning the government’s legitimacy, and pressure members of parliament to adopt a motion of defiance against the government, we can hope that some MPs–we only need 58 of them to bring down this government. So far, 56 have signed but two were missing.
So, we have other MPs left. For example, [inaud.] is even reaching out to the UN because the government is questioning the decent standards of living of the everyday French person. So, regardless of what Francois Hollande does–And we know he will continue pushing. We know we have a brutal prime minister like Manuel Vallas. What matters right now is for our ranks not to be divided. [inaud.] among union leaders and among the everyday marchers who [are] justly concerned for themselves and their children.
Just one last point. For the first time in this century, kids will have lower standards of living than their parents. That’s quite worrisome, especially when you have 25 percent of our youth who are being unemployed.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. You said 56 MPs signed, what did they sign, exactly, just so we’re clear?
LOUATI: It’s called a motion of no confidence, meaning that they would [censure] the government. This can lead to the government being overthrown because the prime minister would no longer have a majority and the legitimacy to pass laws. But so far, and I’m sorry to be so blunt and I’m on the Real News, so my language will stay–[inaud.]
You have the House of Cards in the US. We have the house of cowards here, because every single time the prime minister brought forward extreme measures, MPs followed. They did not budge, did not question, but now the disaster is that they have set a precedent. The fact that the prime minster can decide alone what laws to be passed and without even debate or amendment or even some kind of resemblance of democracy means that members of parliament have to question. We voted for them and they owe us loyalty by protecting our interests. Right now they are just protecting their careers and their political agreements.
DESVARIEUX: All right, Yasser Louati. we are certainly going to keep following this story–very, very fascinating. Thank you so much for being with us.
LOUATI: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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