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Analysis. Widespread demonstrations in France show anger not just toward labor reform, but toward the Hollande government and corporate arrogance.

In France, it’s the youth vs. Hollande

On Tuesday, high school students will take to the streets again, and then next Saturday will be another day of demonstrations and strikes against the reform of the Labor Code throughout France. The protests have not let up. On Thursday, the third day of protests by workers and students, the demonstration was important.

And this continues, despite changes to the first draft of the text and divisions among the trade unions — the CFDT was officially absent from the demonstrations, although some of its members took part in it, as well as FAGE, the students’ organization. CGT, FO, the UNEF for students and four other unions continue to demand the “full withdrawal” of labor reform. In the Senate, the same demand was made by senators of the French Communist Party.

According to the secretary of the CGT Philippe Martinez, who was leading the Paris demonstration, they must “start from scratch, with a modern code that guarantees rights to all workers, young and old.” For the CFDT, in contrast, a withdrawal of the text would be “a defeat for the workers,” because “we were able to advance our proposals.”

In confusion

The government is uncertain, while the shock wave of the protest is also enhanced by the hasty withdrawal of the constitutional reform on the deprivation of nationality for those responsible for terrorism, announced by François Hollande the previous evening. Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri is considering other tweaks, particularly on layoffs caused by economic reasons.

In the grip of the confusion, the government is trying to please everyone: For small- and medium-sized businesses, it decreased the period of lowered demand that would trigger easier layoffs (less than a year) and it stretches that time (over a year) for large companies. But again improvisation prevails, as already highlighted by the chaos that has wrecked the constitutional reform: The Constitutional Council could undo this change, because it violates the principle of equality. A principle that the protesters consider already broken by the reform, which gives space to company agreements at the expense of category agreements.

More than 260 demonstrations and strikes

“Touche pas à mon code,” “Non à la casse du travail,” “On vaut mieux que ça,” but also a more self-deprecating “Plus de frites à la cantine” (more french fries in the cafeteria) and an interactive map to follow the demonstrations on the Internet (loitravail.lol). There were more than 260 demonstrations through the French cities. Very strong presence of young people and children. Ten colleges closed, as well as 176 high schools: 11 closed preventively in Paris by principals, to prevent any violence outbreak, like happened a week ago.

The policeman filmed beating a kid in front of the Lycee Henri-Bergson in Paris was arrested on Thursday. The police used tear gas and batons, even in many provincial cities. There were about 30 arrests amid violence on the edge of the demonstrations. The government spokesman, Minister Stéphane Le Foll, has launched an “appeal for calm,” while many young people have expressed outrage at the gratuitous violence by casseurs. In Marseille, Nantes, Rouen, Rennes, Brest, Toulouse and elsewhere there have been tense moments in the demonstrations, incidents of objects thrown, firecrackers and broken windows.

In Paris, after some tensions in the parade of high school students in the morning, in the afternoon the event was divided in two under the rain, the trade unions on the one hand and a group of very young people on the other. Strikes paralyzed transportation services, offices and schools. Opera shows were canceled, the Château de Versailles and the Eiffel Tower closed, newspapers were absent from newsstands and many private sector workers were present in the demonstrations, sporting banners with the names of factories that have closed or laid off workers.

There are those who compare this movement to the (victorious) fight against the CPE (First Employment Contract) 10 years ago. “We should not be nostalgic,” says William Martinet of UNEF. “Each generation invents and decides how to mobilize.” Now there is the strength of the Internet, enhancing the impact of demonstrations.

Protest beyond the reform

The strength of the demonstration shows a fight that goes beyond the legal content of the Labor Code — it expresses anxiety about perpetually high unemployment, rage against degrading working relationships, against the excessive power of employers, symbolized, just two days before Thursday’s demonstrations, by the arrogance of the doubling of the salary of Carlos Tavares, CEO of Peugeot, increased to €5.2 million in 2015, and a “merit bonus” for the Medef (French Confindustria), which coincided with employee wages freezes and layoffs.

The demonstrations also represent a great disappointment in the socialist government, the confirmation of a now irreparable rift between Hollande and his former voters. The CFDT seems to be preaching in a vacuum with the proposed changes to the initial text, partially accepted, with the objective to add more in the debate in parliament, where the socialist “internal opposition” is on alert and the extreme left fights for the withdrawal. It is the very idea behind the rejection of the reform: the typical concept of the right that the Labor Code, namely the protection of workers, is a barrier to employment.

In a society with zero growth, the protesters called for more protection, less insecurity, a reduction of working hours, while the reform waters down the 35 hours, a democratization of labor relations. Hollande’s Jobs Act imposes a concept dear to Medef: If it is easier to fire, there will be more hiring. The changes obtained by the CFDT, which leave a bit of room to the labor court judges to determine compensation in the event of unfair dismissal or reduce the freedom to dismiss, fell on deaf ears.

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