A French Spring
A new movement against labor market deregulation is taking shape in France. Since February, when the Socialist Party (PS) government of François Hollande and Manuel Valls announced a proposed reform of the French labor code (code du travail), a wave of protests has swept across the country. On March 9, 500,000 people participated in a national day of action; an additional 1.2 million joined trade union demonstrations on March 31; and on April 9, tens of thousands more marched in Paris and other French cities against the law.
One of the impressive aspects of the new movement is the sheer number of cities and towns where protests have been organized: more than 250 on March 31 alone. That day, bad weather depressed turnout in the French capital. But despite the rain, hundreds of protesters gathered that night in Paris’s Place de la République, in the first of the “Nuit Debout” occupations.
In the weeks that followed, copycat Nuit Debout events started popping up all over France. Tens of thousands flocked to République to participate in nighttime mass meetings.
The occupation polarized French political opinion. The conservative philosopher Alain Finkielkraut denounced the Nuit Debout protesters as “fascists,” after he was loudly insulted when he tried to slip into one meeting. Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) released a statement demanding the movement’s suppression, calling it a “source of violence and degradation.”
And just this week, former President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech in which he attacked the protestors as “brain-dead,” and labeled them “thugs.” Never one to mince words, Sarkozy compared the occupation of République to a “burning fire which undermines the state’s authority.”
All of this comes at a time of heightened repression and police violence. Despite the “state of emergency” that’s been in force since the November 13 attacks in Paris, officials have so far shied away from an outright ban on the gatherings. But the government’s suspension of civil liberties has given France’s famously violent national police a green light to crackdown on protests against the labor law.
Demonstrations have been tear-gassed; protesters have been violently dispersed; in many cities, activists have been beaten and arrested, High-school students have faced particularly harsh measures: in late March, video of one student at a north Paris high school being beaten by the CRS sparked national outrage (leading prosecutors to file charges against one of the officers involved).
On the Anglophone left, there has been a great deal written on the Nuit Debout protests. Many observers have pointed out the similarities between these gatherings and Occupy Wall Street or the Indignados in Spain. Less attention has been paid, however, to the struggle that launched Nuit Debout — the movement against the French government’s proposed reform bill.
That’s surprising, because the two are so closely connected: Nuit Debout emerged out of the protests against the draft labor law, and it has fed off the popular energy they unleashed. In the end, its fate is linked to the success of that movement.
Much depends, then, on what happens to the draft labor law. So far, public opinion has favored the protests against the bill: according to a late March survey, almost three-quarters of the public opposes the draft labor law, and over 50 percent want to see protests continue.
With a union-led day of action against the proposal set for tomorrow, and parliament scheduled to begin debating the measure on May 3, the movement against the labor law is entering a critical phase.