Since being elected Macron - the poster-boy of European liberalism and the self-described "Jupiterian" president - has seen his popularity steadily decline as his electoral facade crumbles away. A majority of French voters (57%) are now “dissatisfied” with the President's performance, making these approval ratings the lowest for any incoming president, after four months, since 1995.
This of course comes as no surprise to anyone, as Macron has been caught in a series of political gaffes from his racist remarks regarding refugees, to spending €26,000 of state money on makeup. Macron has repeatedly shown himself to be completely out of touch with the French people. This former banker has firmly placed himself in the pockets of big business and capitalists, but now more insidiously he is beginning to roll out blistering attacks against French workers. The so-called saviour of the liberal centre ground in Europe has been hit with the realities of an economic system facing a financial and political crisis, and his approval ratings will therefore continue to freefall.
Acting in the interests of the French capitalist class, Macron will seek to do what both Sarkozy and Hollande failed to do in the past: overhaul France’s labour laws.
The history of the French working class is one of radicalism and class struggle. The workers of France won many concessions from the bourgeoisie in the post-war period, including favourable labour laws and trade union rights which the bourgeoisie have so far been unable to fully remove. However, in this period of financial crisis the capitalists can no longer afford these concessions and we are seeing a bitter attempt on their part to claw them back. Yet any attacks carried out by the bourgeoisie will greatly upset the social and political dynamic in France and open the country up to a period of intense political struggle.
The proposed changes to France’s 3,000-page labour code were recently unveiled by Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe last Thursday (31st Aug). Macron wants parliament to vote on the new legislation in the upcoming parliamentary session and due to the majority his party's coalition won in the last general election they will surely push these attacks through. For French workers this will be the third attack on workers’ rights in the past few years. The changes aim to give French capitalists more so-called “flexibility”, which means an increased ability to fire workers and negotiate worse conditions and worse pay in a typical race to the bottom.
The reforms announced by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe include a few core measures:
The first, reduces the time limit, from two years to one, for workers to make a case for a wrongful dismissal at the ‘Prudhommes’ labour courts. It also caps the compensation that workers can receive from these dismissal cases. The compensation cap will also be made proportional to the monthly salary, and amount of time that the person in question has worked for the company, starting at three months' salary for employees with up to two years of service and reaching a maximum of 20 months' salary for employees with more than 30 years service. This is clearly preparing the ground for mass layoffs that may occur in the coming years.
Secondly, on some issues such as staff bonuses, the duration of fixed-term contracts, and employment contract renewal, companies will no longer be bound by national law. These issues may be resolved at company or industry level, which will mean a severe worsening of conditions for workers, as the strong position that French workers once had on a national level will be completely undercut.
For small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, these can now exclude unions and industry-wide collective bargaining agreements during negotiations, and directly liaise with workers on a range of issues, including pay and working hours. There is also increased pressure from business groups and lobbyists to apply this also to companies with less than 300 employees.
France’s once strong redundancy laws will also be completely undermined as companies will now find it much easier to offer voluntary redundancies. Multinationals will also face fewer hurdles in laying off French staff. At present international groups have to offer French workers jobs in overseas operations, this will be completely scrapped. Workers representation bodies within companies have previously been comprised of three separate committees, but these will now be forced to merge into one single body.
The President of big business
French Capitalism is falling behind in international competition, in particular against other European countries such as Germany. In previous periods, the ruling class had the option of devaluing its currency to temporarily boost its economy, but with the introduction of the Euro that is no longer an option. Instead, what is left is “internal devaluation” that is, forcefully bringing down the cost of production by attacking the working class. Other European countries, such as Britain, Italy and Germany, have already carried out similar attacks. So when Macron makes these calls for “reform” under the guise of modernising, what he means to say is to attack and defeat the French workers and drive them onto zero-hour contracts and poverty wages like the rest of Europe. He is trying to catch up with the other European capitalist classes.
Mr Macron tried to justify the measures saying, “We are the only major economy of the European Union which hasn’t vanquished mass unemployment in more than three decades.” In effect, Macron is blaming unemployment on the workers, who are supposedly too well off. He has vowed to cut France’s unemployment drastically by 7 percentage points by 2022. All of this is to be achieved by attacking living conditions, pay and job security. From the point of view of the capitalist class the squeezing of the working class has become necessary in order to maintain profits and “competitiveness”. But lower living standards will not solve the crisis. In fact by reducing demand it will only add to it.
Political situation in France
The Presidential election in May saw Macron come to power against the right-wing Front National. The two candidates in the second round, being so politically divorced from the reality of the French people, meant that around 37% of the electorate did not vote for any of them. Many others held their nose to vote for Macron only in order to keep the reactionary Le Pen out of office. The 66.1% of the vote that Macron secured was little indication of his real popularity. In fact, in the streets, the most politically advanced layers of the masses and the youth began to rally around the slogans: “Neither the banker, nor the racist!” and “The real anti-establishment, that is us!”. After years of betrayals and opportunist zig zags by the Socialist and Communist Parties, the only real left-wing alternative in those elections was Jean-Luc Mélencon. Unfortunately, he was was narrowly kept off the 2nd round ballot by a few percentage points, otherwise the outcome may have been very different for Macron.
A month later in June, the French legislative elections propelled Macron’s liberal coalition to an overall majority, gaining a whopping 350 seats out of a total of 557. His party alone won an outright majority of 308 seats. Much like in the presidential election, this came off the back of the collapse in the vote share of the previous mainstream political coalitions, the right-wing ‘Republicans’ and the massive decline of the centre-left coalition lead by the French Socialist Party. In the 1st round these coalitions lost 13% and 30% of the vote share respectively. The Socialist Party has lost almost all credibility and will inevitably engage with Macron’s movement much like the French Communist Party, who outrageously called for a vote for Macron during the presidential election.
Marine Le Pen’s ‘Front National’ also suffered minor losses in the legislative elections. In fact, the only two political parties to make gains were the two newly formed parties: Macron’s ‘En Marche’ and Mélenchon’s anti-austerity ‘La France Insoumise’. This is a clear indication of the levels of discontent among the masses that have lost faith in the old political establishment and are looking for a new way out of the dead end.
Just as the decline of Sarkozy saw the Socialist Party and Francois Hollande sweep to power in 2012, under the guise of an anti-austerity and pro-workers message, Macron had to present himself as an anti-establishment figure. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If there is any difference between Macron and Hollande it is merely that Macron is more in tune with the ruling class. Hollande’s presidency, which went on to betray the working class, saw his approval ratings in one poll fall to a measly 4%. Macron’s popularity is declining even more rapidly and that is even before he has begun implementing his programme. Hollande himself supported Macron in the presidential race and their superficial differences in party politics are just a cover for their underlying similarity. All the attacks against the working class carried out by the previous administration including the labour laws, the budget cuts and the tens of billions of euros paid as subsidies to the big companies will no doubt continue and in fact worsen. Macron will accelerate what Hollande started, by pushing through labour reforms and privatization. This in turn will lead to increasing tensions with the working class whose leaders will be forced to act. The organic crisis of capitalism means class confrontation is inevitable and the baton has simply been passed to Macron.
The working classes respond
As the labour reform proposals were announced, small protests erupted in the Parisian suburb of Jouy-en Josas called by the more left-wing union federations of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and Solidaires, which garnered a few hundred activists in attendance. One protester said: “Mr Macron represents the big bosses, and those who want to cut public services, social protection and everything achieved by workers” . Another insisted, “It is about ideology ... to be able to sack workers more easily and stop work. In fact, he wants to get rid of employee protections altogether.” A national day of action with 65 demonstrations has been called on September 12.
Last summer, under pressure from the ranks, the union leaders reacted to Hollande’s proposed labour reforms with large protests and strike action. This time around two of the three largest unions, the more moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), and the third-largest union, Force Ouvriere (Worker’s Force), have offered timid criticism in the face of this attack and have ruled out strike action and protests. This is a clear betrayal of the working class which is facing a brutal attack on its conditions.
Anger is rife amongst the French workers and youth. Years of austerity and falling living standards have prepared the ground for big explosions. The new attacks will only accelerate this process of radicalisation. The masses are willing to struggle. But isolated strikes and protests are clearly not enough as we saw last year. The “days of action” which we already see planned for September will not, in and of themselves, stop the newfound determination of the bosses and their spokesman in Macron. What is needed is for the trade union leaders to step up the struggle and move from one day strikes to preparing open-ended ones.
It is unclear what will happen in the coming period and how the organisation of the workers’ counteroffensive will materialise. However, we can be sure that the working class will not take these attacks without a fightback. Jean-Luc Melenchon has called on his supporters to join the planned protests. He has also called for a political mass demonstration in Paris on 23 September. His political front, the ‘France Insoumise’ movement could develop into a focal point for the growing radicalisation within society. The time is ripe to launch a bold and radical campaign with a clear strategy for how to win power in the next period. A real socialist alternative is the only remedy to Le Pen and the FN who will also no doubt try to galvanize support on the back of the rise in anti-establishment politics. A radical campaign would attract the numerous workers and unemployed who were won over to Le Pen not necessarily on the strength of her programme, but on the disgust at the impotence and corruption of the establishment parties. A serious fight against the ruling class, whether represented by Macron or Le Pen, must be built around the mobilisation of the youth and the workers on the basis of a socialist programme which explains the fundamental causes of the present crisis that are all rooted in the capitalist system. Only a break with this system can solve the problems faced by the workers and youth of France.