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Deadlock in France

Deadlock in France

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS continue to demonstrate in France against the new labour law. Targeted strikes have hit petrol supplies, transport and public services. Protests in Paris on 14 June ended with hundreds of ‘autonomists’ attacking property and fighting the police. Prime Minister Manuel Valls accused the principal union organiser, the CGT, of failing to control their protests. He asked them to stop holding marches in the capital, and threatened to ban future demonstrations if the union federation did not comply. The union refused, and accused the government of acting out of desperation.

The new legislation was presented in February this year. PM Valls claimed it was intended to increase employment, favour negotiations within workplaces and protect employees. This could be seen in line with EU Commission recommendations to make the labour market more ‘flexible’. But, as Gérard Filoche, a Socialist member and specialist in labour law noted, it was principally a response to pressure from the French employers’ body, the MEDEF. Filoche accused the government of giving in to demands to erode the pillars of the Code du Travail, the legislation that protects workers’ rights.

This was not simply a response to complaints about red tape. Certainly it makes redundancies easier and helps alter working arrangements. But it is mainly about weakening collective bargaining, agreements which cover – unlike in the UK – nearly everybody employed in the public and private sectors.

The present disputes have crystallised around this aspect of the labour law. French unions may have small memberships but are powerful through elections for negotiations. The new law allows for agreements to be reached at company rather than sector level and allows bosses to appeal directly to their workforce. The CGT and smaller union federations, like Force Ouvrière, have more weight across a sector than in individual enterprises. Their rival, the CFDT, has strength in particular plants or companies.

Instead of joining with the CGT-led protests, the CFDT has decided that the new law, modified to include a package of transferable training and other rights, gives workers more freedom to reach agreement with their employers. The CFDT now backs the changes.

The labour law has come to symbolise the inability of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Valls to deliver the reforms that the election of the Socialists to power four years ago promised. Efforts to tighten budget controls in areas like pension spending have met with resistance from party MPs, the ‘frondeurs’, now less an awkward squad than a group in itself. The French Greens have split, with a minority joining the Valls government and the majority entering into opposition alongside left wing deputies from the Communists and Front de Gauche.

As parliamentary debate on the labour law continues, the left is the principal force of resistance, not just in the streets but also in the National Assembly and Senate.

The protests have also seen the emergence of the Nuit Debout movement. Originating in the journal Fakir and inspired by the film Merci Patron, it began after a demonstration at the end of March with an occupation of the Place de le République. It stayed awake not just that night, but remained in place. Nuit Debout spread across France. Run by general assemblies, with an elaborate voting system, some see it as a precursor of a new form of popular rule on the lines of the old Occupy movement. Others consider it as a cauldron for creative new thinking. Proposals for direct democracy have emerged from the movement. Some Nuit Debout ideas are very abstract, underlined by the writings of leading figure Frédéric Lordon. It has not touched the poorest and recently there have been calls for a relaunch to reinvigorate the movement.

Meanwhile disastrous opinion polls for the left emphasise a massive loss of confidence in the Socialists, not least for their handling of this dispute. Not a single poll gives a left wing candidate any chance of making it to the second round of next year’s presidential elections. François Holland hovers at around 15%, neck and neck with the self-declared radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The only saving grace is that no poll gives the far-right Marine Le Pen much hope of becoming President of France.

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