In French Politics, May Is the Cruelest Month

AP Photo/Bertrand Combaldieu

People vote during a gathering on the Place de la Republique Sunday, April 3, 2016 in Paris. A few hundred protesters have been camping out, holding night-time demonstrations since last week at a symbolic rallying point on the Place de la Republique, to express anger at a proposed labor law that would extend the workweek and make layoffs easier. The social media-driven movement, called “Nuit Debout” or “Rise up at Night,” sprang from nationwide strikes and protests Thursday. 

To the poet, April is the cruelest month, but if you’re a French politician, the month you dread most is likely to be May. The warm weather draws protesters into the streets. On May Day labor flexes its muscles by marching on the symbolic Place de la Bastille, while the Front National celebrates its cult of the nation at the foot of Joan of Arc’s gilded statue in the Place des Pyramides (although this year Marine Le Pen abandoned the traditional site to her father, whom she has expelled from the party).

The historically minded will recall that the Bloody Week of the Paris Commune’s martyrdom began on May 21, 1871. May 1968, which most of the people who wield political power in France today experienced as youths, might seem a happier symbol, but it is often forgotten that the party of order soon reclaimed the streets from the celebrants of disorder and went on to rule for another 13 years. The Popular Front swept to power in May of 1936, as did the Socialist Party of François Mitterrand in May of 1981, but in both cases disillusionment followed within two years. If April is notorious for mixing memory and desire, May tends to mingle renascent hopes of renewal with lingering fears of reversal and disappointment.

This year is no exception. Chaos—to which the French refer with sublime political incorrectness as le bordel (the bordello)—is everywhere. The recently refurbished Place de la République, conceived as an elegant agora encompassing the statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, has become the epicenter of the so-called Nuit Debout (On Your Feet Tonight) movement, which began a few months earlier. In calmer times République is an urban fairground, where bo-bo mothers with toddlers in tow mingle with hipsters and break dancers, wide-eyed tourists, and elderly couples walking arm-in-arm.

But Nuit Debout has brought a very different mix of humanity into this quintessentially Parisian forum (and similar fora across France). The movement has often been compared to Occupy Wall Street in the US, and indeed it shares some of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of its prototype. It is a movement that wants no leaders and disdains all political parties and programs. Its sole product to date has been talk, so much talk that detractors have taken to calling it Dormir Debout (Bored Stiff).

Sociologists who have plumbed the crowds for evidence of an identity (of class, status, occupation, or education) can draw no firm conclusions. The night-standers are better educated than the average Frenchman (61 percent have college diplomas compared with 25 percent of the population at large), yet 20 percent are unemployed (double the national average). A third have participated in parallel student and union protests against a proposed reform of the French labor code (called the El Khomri Law after labor minister Myriam El Khomri), but the aims of the Nuit Debout movement are much vaguer and more diffuse than the aims of those other protests. Two-thirds of the nuitdeboutistes are men, mostly from Paris. The crowd is not exclusively young, although the age profile varies with the hour, growing younger as the night wears on toward the curfew imposed by authorities in response to complaints from sleep-deprived neighbors.

As with Occupy Wall Street, the nightly “happening” has drawn numerous hangers-on more interested in drinking and partying than in debating. The apolitical ravers cordon themselves off with their bongos, boom boxes, and bottled beverages in a corner of the square far from the talkers.

Not everyone connected with Nuit Debout is content with the movement’s conception of politics as amorphous “anti-system” chatter. Three men in particular are often mentioned as unofficial captains of this army without generals: François Ruffin, the director of the film Merci patron! which skewered the billionaire Bernard Arnault for the amusement of more than 250,000 spectators; the heterodox economist Frédéric Lordon, a virulent critic of many other economists, including Thomas Piketty, whose summa against inequality is often seen as one of the instigators of the Occupy movement; and Serge Halimi, the editor of Le Monde diplomatique, who has denounced his fellow journalists for “complicity” with politicians and capitalists. This trio believes that Nuit Debout is unlikely to lead anywhere unless it links up with trade unions and becomes more explicitly political: “Without strategy and allies,” says Halimi, “the rebellion may not lead to a transformation of society.” The enemy is organized, he warns, while the opposition is divided among diverse groups inclined “to defend their own turf without allies, priorities, or battle plan.”

According to Le Monde, Nuit Debout “wants to rethink the whole system, while the unions”—presumably the best-organized of the potential allies Halimi has in mind—“are focused on one objective, withdrawal of the labor code reform bill.” This attributes rather more coherence than is warranted to both the Nuit Debout movement and the labor movement. The latter is in fact split down the middle, with the largest French trade union federation, the CFDT, now favoring the reform (in the wake of certain concessions by the government), while the second largest union, the CGT, opposes it.

Philippe Martinez, the grim-faced, boldly mustachioed leader of the CGT, came into office with the reputation of a hardliner who favored traditional “class struggle” tactics over the more conciliatory line of his two immediate predecessors, Bernard Thibault and Thierry Lepaon (who was ousted following allegations that he had overspent on refurbishing his office and union-paid apartment). The Martinez approach does not enjoy universal support within his own union, however, and is viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of the French. And even Martinez recognizes limits to what can be achieved by strikes. When he appeared on the Place de la République, he told the nuitdeboutistes the same thing he told his union members at their annual convention, that the century-old idea of achieving a change of system by way of a general strike was not a realistic option in 2016. Conversely, the nuitdeboutistes were by no means certain that Martinez’s union itself wasn’t part of the system they so detested.

Nevertheless, even with 70 percent disapproval, Martinez is more popular than either President François Hollande or Prime Minister Manuel Valls, especially after the government’s recourse to Article 49-3 of the French Constitution to secure passage of the El Khomri Law by the National Assembly. Under this procedure, the bill passes unless there is a successful censure vote against the government. In an unprecedented maneuver, revealing the depth of the breach that labor code reform has opened on the left, a group of Socialist deputies attempted to file a censure motion against their own Socialist government. It failed. The Senate has yet to vote on the law, however, and negotiations regarding possible amendments are still under way.

On Monday, in a broadcast debate between Martinez and CFDT head Laurent Berger, Martinez revealed that Prime Minister Valls had called him two days earlier to offer possible concessions, not on labor code reform itself but on other disputes involving railway workers, air traffic controllers, and theatrical employees. In exchange for these concessions, Martinez dramatically announced on the air that he was no longer insisting that the government withdraw a key provision of the labor code reform that would allow wages and working conditions to be negotiated at the firm rather than the branch level. He thus casually dropped what previously had been his union’s non-negotiable bottom line. (The details of the proposed reform are beyond the scope of this article. Interested readers can refer to this well-informed if overly rosy essay by Jonah Birch in Jacobin.)

In the government’s view, the logic of this so-called “inversion of hierarchy,” in which firm-level agreements take precedence over branch-level agreements, is to encourage employers to share strategic information with the unions, as is routinely done in Germany, where unions often agree to tie wage increases to productivity increases in order to gain market share, for which they expect to be remunerated in the future. The government sees such cooperative strategic bargaining as a necessary and long overdue “modernization” of France’s system of labor relations, with the ultimate goal of improving firm competitiveness and encouraging exports. The CGT counters that the real reason for the reform is to weaken worker bargaining power by allowing firms to threaten plant closure unless workers agree to concessions.

This apparent thaw in the deadlock between the government and the CGT suggests that the union now recognizes the logic of the government’s position, even if it remains wary of employer intentions. The behavior of Pierre Gattaz, the head of the leading employer lobby MEDEF, has hardly been calculated to increase trust, however. Gattaz accused Martinez of using “terrorist” tactics—far from conciliatory language in a country still on edge from recent terror attacks. Martinez then threatened to sue for libel, although Gattaz will no doubt respond that he was referring to Martinez’s order to the CGT printers union to shut down all newspapers in the country except the Communist Party’s Humanité—the only paper that agreed to publish Martinez’s strike manifesto.

For Gattaz, this unprecedented union attack on the media amounted to a “Stalinist dictatorship.” Meanwhile, the CGT drew a rebuke from the police union for its circulation of a poster showing a street spattered with blood stemming from alleged police violence against demonstrators. There have in fact been a number of incidents in which the police appear to have used unnecessary force, but there have also been widely publicized attacks on police, apparently by masked anarchist casseurs, including the torching of a police car with two officers still inside. A 27-year-old American has been charged with attempted murder in that incident.

While the two sides exchange low blows, Martinez is keeping the pressure on, with CGT pickets blocking oil refineries, leading to shortages of gasoline at the pump. Paris transport workers are set to strike next week, as are air traffic controllers. Disruption of rail transport began on yesterday and is expected to continue indefinitely. With the European soccer championships set to kick off in Paris on June 10, a large-scale work stoppage in key sectors could create a gigantic mess. President Hollande, an avid soccer fan, hopes to add a few points to his abysmally low popularity ratings by mingling with the fans at the matches, and the last thing he wants is a surly population fuming about gasoline shortages and transportation snafus during this showcase event.

Although his chances of succeeding himself as president seem slim, there is at least one positive sign: Unemployment has declined for two straight months. Hollande may also be on the verge of achieving an unprecedented labor code reform, which, no matter how watered down compared with the original draft, he can present as a step toward improved competitiveness. But even if economic improvement continues, his only real hope of re-election depends on a split in the center-right Republican Party.

The two leading candidates for that party’s nomination are former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. Juppé is ahead in the polls, but Sarkozy controls the party apparatus. If Sarkozy somehow wins the Republican primary and Juppé decides to run as an independent—both unlikely events—the right-wing vote would be split, and Hollande might retain just enough popularity to slip past both Juppé and Sarkozy and make it into the second round as the opponent of Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right. In that case, Hollande would presumably be elected in the second round, despite his abysmal approval ratings. It’s a desperate hope. At this point it’s not even clear that he would get more votes in the first round than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the presumptive candidate of the far left.

Meanwhile, the Nuit Debout protesters continue to dream of leaderless revolution, and the CGT pickets continue to block the refineries. The split between the interests of workers narrowly defined and the interests of would-be revolutionaries keen on a wholesale change of society has thus reared its head once again, as it has so often in the history of social democracy. One often hears the present moment, with populist parties of the far right contending for power on nationalist, xenophobic platforms, compared to the 1930s, but the tension in France among the Nuit Debout dreamers, the CGT militants, and the CFDT reformists is reminiscent of another turbulent period—the one about which Carl Schorske wrote in his history of German social democracy before World War I. Then as now, the passions aroused by kaleidoscopic factional and ideological clashes within the broad left strengthened the forces of conservative reaction and obscured rather than clarified the true threat to peace and prosperity: the inability of national political systems to achieve international cooperation in the face of competitive rivalries—or really even to conceive what form such cooperation might take. The French bordel is nothing but the Gallicization of the disunity that threatens all of Europe today. And there we are, giving the lie to Victor Hugo’s famous ode to the First of May, when tout conjugue le verbe aimer, when everything conjugates the verb “to love.” There has been no love lost in France this May, nor anywhere else in Europe. Le bordel is everywhere.

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