Protest over labor reforms in France

Occupations, strikes, riots. Forget the football, WTF is going on in France?

With Brexit dominating the headlines, you may not have noticed that, on the other side of the Channel, thousands of French people have been involved in some pretty full-on protests right across the country recently. But what’s it all about?

Lots of people have been involved, from workers and university students, to high school children and hipsters. Oil refineries have been blocked, banks have been smashed up and squares have been occupied. For such a big story, it’s not had much coverage in the press. Most of the news from France has been about the footy.

So what sparked it all off?

In March the French president Francois Hollande announced plans to change the country’s labour laws. Lots of workers weren’t too happy about this, so the unions organised a mass demonstration on 9 March (what they called a “warm-up”) with hundreds of thousands of people. Apparently, over 90 secondary schools were blockaded, shut down and occupied by their own students. I’m from the UK, and I certainly couldn’t imagine that happening here!

This mix of students and workers has continued to galvanise support against the government. By 31 March the protests were even bigger, with 200 demonstrations across the country, attended by around 1.2 million people. Since then the protests have continued. For example, on 14 June hundreds of thousands of people descended on the French parliament, the Eiffel Tower was closed due to strike action, and 58 people were arrested.

What are the government trying to change?

One of the main changes affects the 35-hour working week. While the reforms formally keep this in place, they completely undermine it in practice, because employers are no longer required to pay higher wages to those working overtime. The law also gives greater freedom for employers to fire workers, reduce their pay, and to negotiate holiday and maternity leave allowances.

The government argues that these reforms will reduce France’s 10.2% unemployment rate. Their argument rests on the idea that businesses don’t currently hire workers because they’re too expensive and too inflexible. If the economy takes a turn for the worse, businesses can’t fire workers or reduce conditions and are stuck in impossibly demanding contracts.

French riot police spray pepper gas at a demonstrator during a protest against changes to Labor Laws in Paris
Image: © Christophe Ena / AP/Press Association Images

What do the workers think?

The unions and striking workers have a completely different view of the planned changes and why the unemployment level is so high. They see the reforms as an attack on their basic . Unemployment is not caused by the labour laws, which they say actually protect jobs in a world where corporations have an ever increasing amount of power, and have been fought for over many centuries. The French public are also sceptical, with recent polling showing that three in four people oppose the changes, and President Hollande’s approval rating is at an all-time low.

Yep, this is an old struggle between workers and business, and one that’s not new to France, where this kind of thing happens a lot. In 2006, for example, students were engaged in a stand-off with the government over plans to make similar changes – a battle which was won by the students after three months of street protests and university occupations. Examples like this must give the protesters hope that they can win again.

So, what happens now?

The trouble for the workers and protesters is that the government isn’t backing down. On Tuesday, they once again used emergency constitutional powers to try and bypass parliament in order to push through the reforms.

But this has only sparked further protests. In general, there seems to be a growing wave of discontent within France. A new movement called Le Nuit Debout - or ‘night on our feet’ - (formed after people refused to go home after one march earlier this year) calls for radical social change and sees the labour law reforms as part of a failed French economy that’s left many behind and only serves the interests of an elite few.

On the other side, right-wing parties like the Front National are on the rise. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, has responded to this unrest by claiming her party is the only force able to restore order. Much like Brexit, which was also in response to perceived pressures on jobs and wages, these protests only add to the larger sense of crisis within Europe at the moment, and it’s hard to say which way it will go.

This article was written in British English

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