French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts

France is in the middle of its second youth revolt in the span of just a few months time. Students and workers all across France are mobilising against the proposed First Employment Contract. A national demonstration will be held this weekend against the proposed legislation, and some 1 to 1.5 million people are expected to turn out. The stage is being set for a decisive battle between the working class and the Villepin government.

Just months after the revolt of the youth on the estates, France finds itself in the middle a second large-scale revolt of the youth. In the autumn of last year we saw the uprising of disenfranchised youth of the estates in the cities of France against unemployment, low wages, the lack of infrastructure, misery and discrimination. This uprising died down without achieving any significant change in the situation. Now the student youth of the universities are revolting against the new employment scheme which will transform working youth into an easily dispensable workforce. Today 64 of the 84 universities in France are on strike and many campuses are blocked or occupied by the students. In many places the university workers have joined the protests. The movement has started to extend to the school students who are today joining the university students and the trade unions in a new nationwide day of demonstrations. A national demonstration will be held this Saturday in Paris. It is estimated that some 1 to 1.5 million people will march in the capital. The youth marching on the streets of France today are not the same students as those who rose up in 1968. Today many, if not the majority, of the university students are forced to work to pay their studies. Many of the students on the marches have a foot in the workplace, but often the worst of all workplaces: fast-food restaurants, cleaning companies, call centres etc. Many know from their own experience what exploitation means. But as these jobs seemed temporary more or less many were prepared to tolerate the bad working conditions. Now that the government has announced this new job scheme, student youth – in reality part time working youth - are realising that they will face the same conditions after having finished their studies. They will face temporary contracts, flexible working hours, and the arbitrary actions of the bosses for the rest of their lives. Not accidentally, France is the country with the highest percentage of short term contracts in the OECD! The workers and youth cannot tolerate this. So this student movement finds it origins in the growing exploitation in the workplace. Young people and workers with their unions are now joining in a new movement which can force the right-wing government to retreat. If they win, and that is a distinct possibility, it will give a new impetus to the left in France and elsewhere.

Over the past weeks the mobilisation against the Villepin government’s First Employment Contract (CPE) has grown significantly, culminating in a nation wide demonstration of more than 1 million people. The indisputable success of the action on March 7 clearly illustrates the rejection of the CPE by the bulk of the working class and youth. It completely discredits any claim by the government that it has the support of the silent majority in its crusade against youth unemployment, this despite the weaker mobilisation last February (around 400 000 demonstrated nation wide) which was undermined by the mid-term school break. The success of this mobilisation is all the more important as it illustrates the unity of workers, youth, students and teachers in the struggle against the casualisation of labour and the deterioration of working conditions.

The revolt of the Estates

In the background of these protests lie the riots of the disenfranchised and unemployed youth of the estates across France which occurred in late 2005 (see: The revolt of the French estates). These revolts were a clear, although perverse, message to the government that its policies of social austerity, its attacks on the unemployed, and its neglect of the education of working class youth, mainly of immigrant background, and all the further wearing down of the social gains of the working-class had to come an end.

In response to these riots, apart from declaring the State of Emergency and sending in the riot police (CRS), the government once again swung the whip of reaction against the working class and youth. Instead of focusing more on education and the improvement of the schools in the working class neighbourhoods, in a country in which the fulfilment of a decent education is already reserved for a small elite, the government passed a law legalising apprenticeships for those as young as fourteen years of age and approving the assignment of fifteen year-olds to nightshifts. By doing so the French government scrapped what the working class had considered to be a fundamental right since the end of the Second World War, free and mandatory education until the age of sixteen.

However, this was not enough for the conservative Villepin government and the class which supports it, the bourgeoisie. In mid-January of this year, to the unending joy of the bosses, Villepin presented the so-called First Employment Contract, which was to provide a tool to tackle youth unemployment by giving the employers more freedom to determine the working conditions of their young employees’. Of course, the truth of the matter is quite different. This new contract was nothing but another gift to the MEDEF (Movement of French Enterprises, the “bosses’ union”), which would allow employers to sack new employees under the age of 26 at any time for any reason within a two-year probationary period. The CPE will also make it more difficult for the sacked worker to resist the unfair and unjustified sacking as this new contract makes such action completely legal for the bosses to undertake.

The spectre of the CIP

In the shadow of the CPE lurks the spectre of the CIP (Professional Insertion Contract) which was presented by the Balladur (then RPR) government twelve years ago. The CPI sought to create a separate minimum wage for young workers. Under the pressure of the mobilisation of workers and youth, Balladur had to withdraw his proposal. Now, the same Balladur is urging Villepin to stand firm.

The introduction of the CPE represents the lust for revenge of the MEDEF and the other forces of bourgeois reaction in French society, not only against the failure of the CIP but also to soothe their violent grudge against the installation of the 35-hour working week by the previous “Plural-left” government (which otherwise undertook a policy of privatisation) and the other progressive reforms it implemented.

For too long the bosses have had to accept that fourteen year-olds belong in school and could not be used as a source of cheap labour to be exploited. The bosses can no longer make concessions to the workers and continue to allow the latter to benefit from the social gains, often won as a result of merciless struggle, acquired over the latter half of the 20th century. It is of course not a surprise that the introduction of the CPE coincides with the proposals of the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, for selected immigration, immigrants being another great source of underpaid labour for the employers.

The reaction of the student unions and youth organisations was immediate upon the government’s announcement of the CPE. Soon they were to come out in their numbers against the government, again in unity with the teachers and the general labour movement just as had happened in the struggle against the CIP in 1994 and against the Fillion law concerning education last year.

The French labour movement, far from being dull and lifeless, and even further from being gullible concerning the government’s promises, has naturally understood that it is only a question of time before the CPE becomes generalised across all age groups of the working class and have thus come out in support of the young workers and students. Even the traditionally more right-reformist unions, such as Force Ouvriere (FO), have called for mobilisations and strikes against the government’s new contract.

Again, very importantly from a Marxist point of view, the student unions have linked their demands to those of the labour movement rather than going off on some “studentist” binge and thus secured support from the bulk of the class in their justified struggle against the government’s clearly anti-youth and anti-worker employment plan.

The Workers’ Parties and Parliamentary Opposition

After its failure to side with the workers during the campaign against the European Constitution, the Socialist Party (PS) is now trying to rectify this by offering strong parliamentary opposition to the CPE. Whilst this is very good and very important in itself, the conscious base of the party and the Marxists must do everything in their power to ensure that the bureaucratic clique at the top of the PS does not usurp the movement and use it as a tool to meet its own ends.

In its arrogance, the Villepin government decided that debates and amendments concerning the CPE (i.e. Parliamentary Democracy and the procedures that it includes) would not be allowed to slow down the “fight against unemployment” and proceeded to impose clause 49.3 of the French Constitution, which enables the government to pass a law without a vote. The Socialist Party, which had previously threatened to do so should the government make use of clause 49.3, posed a motion of no confidence. Of course, there was no chance of it being passed due to the absolute majority the conservatives possess.

The Communist Party is also opposed to the CPE and although it did not jointly submit the motion of no confidence, voted in favour of the latter. All other “left-wing” parties either voted for the motion and/or jointly submitted it. Clearly some, or all, of these parties (with the Socialist Party in the front line) are preparing for a new “Plural-left” style government.

The Media and Segolene Royal

Knowing what it is bound to receive in the coming elections of 2007, not only due to the CPE but to the last five years of policies of austerity that the government has carried through, the bourgeoisie has begun to promote their own candidate to represent the PS in the run for the Elysee.

In the last few months the bourgeois media has constantly exhibited the figure of Segolene Royal, Regional President of Poitou-Charente and wife of the first Secretary of the Party, Francois Hollande, as the candidate most likely to succeed in taking the PS to power in 2007. Royal herself has been rather silent concerning the protests against the CPE and gladly claims that Tony Blair is “her role model”.

Again, this move to promote Royal as the most likely winner of the 2007 elections is clearly a tactic of the bourgeoisie to ensure that, should the labour movement win, Chirac and Villepin would be replaced by a docile and “market friendly” reformist President and government.

The future battles: No to all precarious contracts! No to the casualisation of labour!

The struggle against the CPE and the policies of social austerity are far from over, and even further from being won, especially not since the plan was approved yet again in parliament on Thursday March 9. The student and workers’ unions have now jointly called for a third day of national mobilisation against the CPE, and forty-five universities have been on strike since March 9. That very same night, the CRS charged against the Sorbonne and barricades were erected on Boulevard Saint Michel, later on to be dismantled by the same CRS. As Marxists, we must look with enthusiasm and optimism at this unity between the youth, the students, and of course, the workers. It is a very constructive step in the struggle against capitalism and its bourgeois masters. The Marxists must strive to preserve this unity and take part in these joint demonstrations to defend our position and methods as being the only ones that can truly bring about a socialist society. The social gains of the working class cannot be preserved in a period under which capitalism is in crisis. The only way by which our gains can be maintained is through tearing the banks and the means of productions out of the grip of the class that currently owns them, the bourgeoisie, and by putting them in the hands the class that produces society’s wealth, the working-class.

No to the casualisation of labour!

No to the deterioration working conditions!

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