We’re on the eighth day of “industrial action” here to protest changes to France’s cherished, preposterous labor laws. This morning dock workers stormed the port city at Le Havre. Striking workers have cut off roads and bridges and blockaded a nuclear submarine base. Today, workers at nuclear power plants joined the strike. The almighty CGT — a trade union that descends directly from communists — has been blocking oil refineries, causing fuel shortages and endless lines at gas stations. France has mobilized its strategic oil reserves for the first time since 2010.
President François Hollande says there are supplies sufficient to last 115 days. Keep that number in mind.
The situation is particularly fraught because Prime Minister Manuel Valls pushed the so-called El-Khomri law (named after Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri) through the National Assembly without a vote. This is, technically, permitted under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, and the power has been used about 50 times since 1958. But it’s obviously problematic to have a constitution that permits this. Just as it’s obviously problematic to have an unelected, radical labor union violently holding the country hostage.
Hollande and Valls probably went the Article 49-3 route — neo-Louis XIV style — because they didn’t think theyhad the numbers to get the law through parliament. And if so, they were probably right. MPs from their own party are now trying to pass motions of censure against the government; yesterday, they failed — by just two votes — to initiate a vote of no-confidence. This is their own party. Libération described the scenes in the parliament as “grotesque,” which sounds about right.
The CGT would appear to be betting that the party is divided, that it can readily make life a misery for everyone in France, and that this will force Hollande and Valls to back down. They know Hollande’s not a brawler. He’s never had the stomach for an all-out fight with the unions, and nor has any French president, for that matter. Traditionally, the government caves or compromises in the face of this kind of pressure. Strikes like this usually aren’t viewed as unacceptable, anarchic, and undemocratic, as they would be in the US. They’re seen as a vehicle for democratic expression and even a normal prelude to negotiation.
But this time might be different. For one thing, a psychological barrier, or several of them, really, have been crossed. France is already under emergency rule. The EU is on the verge of a crack-up. France’s inability to get its house in order is a part of the problem and everyone knows it. If the government can’t make even these sensible, modest changes to its absurd labor laws, France’s future is grim. If France’s future is grim, so is Europe’s.
I’m not sure how these circumstances will affect public opinion or Hollande’s psychology. It seems to me it might stiffen his resolve. It certainly should. The CGT only represents three percent of France’s workforce, and it has its own vulnerability: It’s in a power struggle with the other unions. Its main rival, the CFDT, backs the new labor law. Union elections are ahead next year. The CFDT is betting Hollande will stick it out, and if he does, it will give them credibility to campaign against the CGT as the antediluvian, job-killing, radical dinosaur it is. That could mean the end of the CGT as a major force in French politics.
The CGT is putting pressure on the country’s strategic nodes — petrochemicals, ports, and railways — which is illegal under French law. Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, is justifying this by saying the passage of the law itself is so obviously anti-democratic as to warrant uproar, given that first, it contravenes the Socialist Party’s manifesto; second, it hasn’t been approved by parliament; and third, polls show that public opinion is against it.
Hollande and Valls seem to be betting that the CGT doesn’t have the support to expand the strikes to the level of a genuine strategic threat, and that public opinion will swing against them if the fuel shortages and the violence continue. I don’t know if they’re right, and they probably don’t, either.
The European football championship starts on June 10. Valls has made a huge point of stressing that the championship will go on despite terrorist threats. The unions are betting that he’ll do anything to avoid the embarrassment of disruptions to the event and will cave to them before facing that humiliation.
Hollande and Valls seem to me to be in the right in every way except one: They truly don’t have a democratic mandate. As Sylvain Attal puts it,
Hollande is not just facing opposition to the labour bill, he is also confronting a fundamental, systemic opposition held by a growing fringe of the parliamentary majority. He has broken promises made on the campaign trail and does not have public opinion on his side. What’s more, he has barely a year more in office. Therefore, he must face the hard fact that to break the current impasse, he needs to go back to the voters.
He can do this in two ways: either the French leader calls for a referendum, thereby putting his job on the line; or he dissolves parliament. This is the spirit of our democratic institutions.
If Hollande decides to do neither it’ll be because he knows the results would be fatal in both cases and he’ll then instead be hoping for some sort of miracle before the 2017 presidential election. …
We’re going to be stuck in this climate of confrontation and violence in the weeks, and perhaps months, to come. Between the two sides sticking to their guns (the government with Article 49-3, the police brutally suppressing protesters), and the CGT trying to take the country hostage by attacking public transportation and refineries – and behind them, the anarchists and thugs they no longer control – France is in a mess. This is distressing because France will be lagging behind and the world will not wait for the country to play catch-up.
Hollande and Valls have vowed to stand firm, but we’ll see.
I can’t help but be put in mind of the miner’s strike. Arthur Scargill’s fatal mistake was to call a coal strike in the spring. It’s springtime in Paris, and if the government really has supplies to last 115 days, and if they have the willpower, they might — finally — be able to break the CGT and enforce this law. There really is no alternative.
But Thatcher had her party on her side, and Hollande doesn’t. Thatcher faced a weak, divided political opposition, the Labour Party having suffered one of its worst-ever defeats in the 1983 election. Hollande’s party is itself weak and divided, and Hollande is the one who’s apt to face crushing defeat in 2017.
So who knows. It’s a nail-biter.
Meanwhile, France’s kung-fu cop has gone viral on Twitter:
Interesting times. I wish I could tell you how this book will end. All I can say for now is that the plot is getting more dramatic: