The French Left Divided

The French Left Divided

This summer, France’s Socialist government quashed the country’s largest wave of strikes of protests in a generation to impose a drastic overhaul of French labor law, revealing deeper fault lines in the process.

Mass march against the Loi Travail, Paris, June 14 (Pascal Vandon / Flickr)

This past spring, observers of France were treated to a sequence of familiar images: a parade of transit strikes snarled traffic, stranding passengers; a busy calendar of marches and demonstrations unfurled along the traditional urban itineraries of labor union protest, enlivened by flares, banners, and protest songs; workers blocked oil refineries, and frustrated drivers faced gasoline shortages in several regions. France was on strike again, this time in an effort to block the Loi Travail, a labor law reform aimed at introducing greater flexibility into work contracts. Its opponents fear that the reform will dismantle workplace protections and give employers more power to dictate salaries and working conditions to workers.

The law’s proponents argue rather that such measures will sweep away rigidities in the French labor market in part responsible for chronically high unemployment. Editorialists and journalists in the United States have happily taken up this refrain, drawing from their traditional stock of commonplaces to chide the French for clinging to their long vacations and short workweeks, job security and early retirement. The Paris-based New York Times columnist Pamela Druckerman posed the timeworn morality play about a France stubbornly refusing to adapt to the hard realities of global capitalism in the form of a rhetorical question: “Why are the French so wedded to a failing system?”

As hopeful union leaders and worried commentators reminded the public, the event horizon and historical reference point for any prolonged nationwide labor movement in France remains the general strikes that paralyzed much of the country for several weeks in November–December 1995. Two decades ago, a coalition of striking labor unions succeeded in beating back a constellation of reforms promulgated by then–prime minister Alain Juppé (currently the favorite among right-wing candidates for next year’s presidential elections), aimed at cutting healthcare and public-sector pension benefits.1 Though the Loi Travail protests have not achieved anything like the same level of mobilization, and the reform became law in late July, they nonetheless bear certain similarities with the 1995 movement. In both, unions postured themselves as defenders of a postwar social contract threatened by neoliberal reformers; in both, a majority of the general population endorsed the striking workers’ aims (public opinion polls conducted in May and June consistently indicated that clear majorities of French people oppose the Loi Travail).

But much has changed in France in twenty years. The 1995 social movement seemed to herald a period of remarkable vibrancy for the French left: intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieu and Bernard Cassen animated a lively debate about alternatives to global capitalism; alter-globalization groups like Attac took shape, drawing from these ideas to pressure for change; new trade unions like SUD (Solidaires, Unitaires, Démocratiques) broke with the top-down model of the big centrales in an effort to invent more democratic, grassroots forms of labor activism; and Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle (plural left), a partnership of Socialists, Communists, and Greens, swept to power in 1997, triumphing over a right largely discredited after the 1995 strikes. Jospin himself came in for strong criticism from his left, notably for pursuing privatizations of publicly held companies, and it was the dispersal of votes among a multitude of left-wing candidates that led to his elimination in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. Jospin’s government nonetheless succeeded in tracking a social-democratic middle ground summarized by his slogan, “yes to the market economy, no to a market society.” His government extended healthcare coverage to those who had fallen through the cracks of France’s postwar welfare architecture; it expanded eldercare; it increased social benefits to combat poverty; it put incentives in place to jumpstart youth employment; and it introduced the thirty-five hour workweek, whose success in driving job creation in France is woefully misunderstood in the Anglophone world.2

In retrospect, however, the 1995 strikes seem less a bellwether than a high-water mark for French organized labor and the progressive left. It’s hard to say whether Jospin’s defeat in the 2002 presidential elections or the broader forces that have put social democracy and organized labor alike on the defensive across western Europe are more to blame. What is certain is that during Jacques Chirac’s rudderless second term and the incoherent right-wing populism that marked Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, unions lost most of their battles against major government reforms (including, notably, reductions to general and public-sector pension benefits). By most measures—declining unionization rates, waning union influence in the co-management of France’s semi-autonomous welfare programs (which are under increasingly tight state tutelage), falling total workdays lost to strikes, and unions’ shrinking capacity to mobilize workers against government measures—the organized labor movement that geared up this spring to protest the Loi Travail is considerably weaker today than it was a generation ago.

There is moreover a singular twist in this latest performance of a timeworn Gallic drama. Unlike most of the great postwar labor protests, the Loi Travail is the work not of the right, but of François Hollande’s Socialist government. For the first time since the Fifth Republic’s inception in 1958, a left-wing government faced a major labor movement contesting its economic and social policies.

What of the Loi Travail itself? A dense, technical text, the Loi Travail in fact proposes a wide range of other changes to French labor law. Most commentators focus on the reduction of the legal requirement to compensate overtime (a roundabout way to weaken the thirty-five-hour workweek) and the easing of layoff procedures. Will these measures ease unemployment, as promised? Perhaps. But we should recall that the European exemplar that has restructured its labor market in similar ways and is so often held up to France, Germany, reduced its unemployment rate at great social cost: poverty rates have shot up, as Germany has witnessed rapid growth in the numbers of working poor. The Loi Travail promises more of the same.

Reforming France’s notorious workweek may be the Loi Travail’s most spectacular measure, but the most important change it brings in fact lies in a seemingly obscure provision concerning labor contract negotiations, buried in article two. Notwithstanding its reputation abroad as strike-happy and all-powerful, French organized labor is weak by Western standards. With no closed shops, low unionization rates, and nothing like the voice in company management that their German counterparts wield, French unions’ power lies in their constitutionally and legally sanctioned role as obligatory interlocutors in labor negotiations (and in co-managing welfare programs—but that isn’t at stake here). Up until now, agreements negotiated between employer organizations and unions at the branch level constituted a legally binding minimum guarantee with regards to wages and working conditions. Article two—the Loi Travail provision that the striking unions most strongly opposed—reverses this arrangement, by ensuring that agreements negotiated at the individual business level trump branch agreements. Since French unions are at their weakest at the enterprise level (excepting in a handful of large corporations and in the public sector), this provision will give employers the upper hand in negotiations and risks weakening organized labor in the long term.


The politics of organized labor in France are often difficult to decipher. If slogans proclaiming the protests to be aimed at forcing the government to abandon the Loi Travail capture part of the truth, as always with union actions in France, complex dynamics were at work. To borrow a phrase from French sports journalism, there were several “matches within the match” pitting not only strikers against government, but also unions against each other, and even warring factions within individual unions. France’s variegated organized-labor landscape is composed of a constellation of national unions, each stamped with specific histories, political identities, and labor-relation strategies. These unions compete against each other in the same workplaces for members and—more importantly—for votes in professional elections that sanction their role as formal interlocutors in workplace, sector-wide and government-level negotiations, as judges in labor law disputes, and as managers in the major social insurance institutions. And French organized labor was far from unanimous in its opposition to the Loi Travail.

For the historically communist Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT)—the largest trade union in France as measured by its professional election results—along with its ally in the current strikes Force Ouvrière (FO—the third-largest union), the Loi Travail protests were part of a campaign strategy in anticipation of upcoming professional elections. Both centrales sought to offer combative proof that they represent the most effective vehicles for defending workers’ interests.

For the second-largest labor organization, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), whose roots lie in the Christian-democratic labor movement, the choice not to strike is an affirmation of the distinctive reformist labor-relations strategy it has pursued since the 1990s. Eschewing confrontational stances and downplaying strikes as a tactic, the CFDT prefers rather to pursue compromise accords, whether with individual employers or with governments. During the December 1995 strikes, for example, while FO and the CGT took to the streets, the CFDT instead endorsed the Juppé reforms. In keeping with this stance, the CFDT lent its imprimatur to the Loi Travail after the government acceded to its demand that a cap on awards to fired workers for wrongful dismissal be lifted last March. In June, both the CGT’s and the CFDT’s headquarters were vandalized—presumably by their respective partisans—a stark illustration that the Loi Travail struggle was also a battle between unions.

Further complicating the picture, the strikes came on the heels of a bitter power struggle within the CGT, whose new chief Philippe Martinez was eager to burnish his credentials as a scrappy labor leader. Martinez’s predecessor Thierry Lepaon, who had sought to impose a more reformist line on the traditionally confrontational federation, faced fierce opposition, and was ousted in early 2015 after leaked documents revealed that his apartment and office had been lavishly renovated at union expense. Martinez, for his part—a Renault metalworker and lifelong union activist whose father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War—all but embodies the CGT’s history and ideals. So too his impressive mustache, a kind of mash-up of Lech Walesa, Joseph Stalin, and Astérix, which inspired copious semiotic analysis and became something of a symbol for the movement. The spectacle of Martinez throwing a tire onto a bonfire at the gates of a blocked refinery in May was high labor protest theater, a gesture perfectly calibrated to communicate his determination to the government and the general public; it was also aimed at reassuring the CGT rank and file that their union had once again taken up its traditional oppositional role in French labor relations.

FO and CGT members on the march, May 12 and June 14 (courtesy Force Ouvrière, left, Pascal Vandon, right)

The Loi Travail has also fanned the flames of revolt within the Socialist party. Card-carrying rank-and-file members as well as elected officials who situate themselves on the left of the party have grown increasingly frustrated with Hollande’s presidency, guilty in their eyes of running to the right on a host of issues. Dubbed the frondeurs, a sizeable group of Socialist deputies in the National Assembly have shirked party discipline, speaking their mind, voting against government initiatives, and even threatening to vote no-confidence measures. Frondeurs’ resistance to the Loi Travail thrice forced Prime Minister Manuel Valls to invoke the Constitution’s article 49.3, which authorizes a head of government to suspend parliamentary debate and force passage of a proposed law in the absence of a no-confidence vote. Not since the party’s refoundation in the 1960s have the Socialists—no strangers to internecine squabbling and internal power struggles—been so close to fracture.

Other constituencies used the strikes to push their own corporatist demands. Railworkers in the national railway SNCF monopoly, for example, walked off to fight proposed changes to their working conditions in anticipation of the European Union–mandated opening up of French rail traffic to private competition next year. Savvy opportunism, but also a reminder of the market-, private-sector-, and austerity-oriented policies that Brussels has persistently imposed on member countries ever since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992.

As always, the street represents the principal battleground on which government–labor confrontations are fought, as trade unions and police trade ludicrously contradictory crowd estimates to prove that the protest has either won popular plebiscite or lost steam. The Loi Travail struggle, however, took unusually violent form on the streets of French cities, as police and demonstrators faced off in some of the fiercest clashes of their kind in recent history. This was less the result of union militancy, however, than of disaffection among younger protesters and a heightened atmosphere of state repression. Traditional forms of union mobilization in France are festive, non-violent affairs—“balloon-and-sausage” demonstrations, as the marches are affectionately known, in which the unions’ own security personnel escort unionists through the streets under the shadow of large balloons emblazoned with locals’ insignia, enveloped in clouds of barbecue smoke rising from merguez-sausage-vendor stands. In the course of the Loi Travail protests, new groups took their place alongside organized labor veterans: high school students worried about their imminent entry into the labor market, participants in Nuit Debout (the loosely organized movement that took shape in French cities to fight the Loi Travail, and which has evolved into a citizens’ forum to debate social and political change), and fellow travelers. Unaccustomed to obeying union security personnel, some among these newcomers answered heavy-handed police tactics with violence. The marches also counted small groups bent on clashing with police. Labeled casseurs (roughly, “vandals”) by media and political leaders, this variegated group encompassed apoliticized youth as well as anarchist, antifascist, and environmental activists (who in many cases identify with the French far-left, anti-Leninist, libertarian autonome movement). Pitched battles pitting several hundred hooded and masked protesters against riot police marked all the major demonstrations, and only increased in intensity with each successive march. In my neighborhood near Place de la République in Paris, the storefront windows of banks, real estate agencies, and other symbols of capitalism, global and local, bear the splintered traces of their passage.

The presence of new categories of protesters alongside traditional union militants, along with the emergence of violence as a characteristic feature of the Loi Travail demonstrations, signaled that important changes in the dynamics of street protest in France were at work. The tension between the nonviolent ethos of organized labor mobilization and the readiness of some young protesters to clash with police generated complex, not always entirely legible, fault lines. In several demonstrations in Paris last May, CGT and FO security services even interposed themselves between police and autonomes in an effort to stop the clashes, only to become themselves embroiled in clashes with autonomes. These dynamics suggest that unions have lost their legitimacy as vehicles for social protest in the eyes of many young people, increasingly drawn to decentralized forms of mobilization like Nuit Debout or to more confrontational forms of protest.

Police did not just respond to protester violence in kind, they abandoned a long (and largely successful) practice of standing off from political demonstrations in favor of novel, considerably more heavy-handed tactics. The government invoked the state of emergency that has been in effect in France since last November’s terrorist attacks to justify its tactics. Far from maintaining order, however, law enforcement’s repeated use of “kettling” in an apparent attempt to cut union marchers off from the various other kinds of demonstrators, and its liberal deployment of flash balls, tear gas, and sting-ball grenades against peaceful protesters and so-called casseurs alike, provoked escalating levels of street violence. The arrest of union officials only added to the tensions. It was hard not to conclude that the government used the state of emergency as a pretext to clamp down on protest and discourage the fainthearted from taking to the streets. Rarely in the last half century—and certainly not since the 1986 death of Malik Oussekine at the hands of police on the margins of a student demonstration in Paris, a tragedy which frightened all subsequent governments from unleashing police on demonstrators except as a very last resort—has France been witness to such brutal policing of street protest. Hundreds of protesters have been injured, some seriously. Valls even decided to prohibit a union protest march in June, which would have earned his cabinet the dubious distinction of being the first government to prohibit a labor demonstration under the Fifth Republic, before quickly reversing course.

In its confrontation with the anti-Loi Travail movement, the Socialist government was as heavy handed in its rhetoric as in its policing. When the head of the principal employers’ federation Pierre Gattaz compared the CGT to “terrorists” in late May, his remarks—however incendiary—were in keeping with the hyperbolic rhetoric that typically characterizes public argument between the two organizations. It was considerably less habitual to hear a Socialist prime minister, in reference to the gas refinery blockades several days before, accuse the CGT of “holding the French hostage”—thus invoking an old right-wing trope aimed at discrediting strikes as a legitimate form of protest. Similarly, the government has been quick to blame the CGT for the violence that has marked the protests, notwithstanding the absence of any evidence that the union has been directly involved, in an effort to discredit the movement. (It is worth recalling that the right to strike is inscribed in France’s constitution.)

Perhaps no one better embodies the Socialist government’s embrace of the right’s anti-union discourse than Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. The former investment banker’s deregulatory bent has made him a lightning rod for criticism from the left, even as his carefully crafted image as a sharply dressed, youthful, modernizing technocrat have made him a media darling and ignited his own presidential ambitions. When confronted by strikers in a small southern town, Macron addressed one demonstrator with startling condescension, in words that spoke volumes about his vision of class, organized labor, and inequality: “Your t-shirt doesn’t scare me. The best way to buy oneself a suit is to work.”


Never has the old saw that France’s Socialists campaign on the left and govern to the right seemed more true than now. The Loi Travail is a one-neoliberal-size-fits-all solution to an employment problem that is largely restricted to young people and low-skilled workers (notwithstanding its labor market rigidities, France boasts one of the highest labor force participation rates for 25–54-year-olds in the world—higher than Germany or the UK, and substantially higher than the United States). Moreover, this push to weaken unions and threaten workers with longer hours and less job security follows a succession of business-friendly reforms promulgated by Hollande since he took office. In 2012 the government put in place deep supply-side cuts to payroll taxes aimed at encouraging employers to hire more workers, while abandoning campaign promises to reform France’s fiscal architecture along more progressive lines. In 2015 it liberalized regulated sectors of the economy like public transportation. The Loi Travail has only hammered the message home, promising labor-market flexibility without any of the compensations that the robust social protections that Denmark’s Flexicurity, or the powerful union voice in company affairs that German co-management, provide. It reminds the French that left and right alike have turned their backs on the postwar promise of advancing social justice and solidarity.

In short, Hollande’s social and economic message differs little from that of his right-wing opposition, IMF economists, or European Union technocrats: there is no alternative to neoliberal restructuring, precarity, and the market. The French must accept a Cornelian social dilemma: surrender their low poverty rates in exchange for German or UK-level employment rates—regardless of the existence of other, more socially clement, models, whether in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, or even in France’s own past.

With its core electorate confused and angry, and Hollande enjoying record low popularity ratings, it is hard to see how the Socialists’ electoral arithmetic will add up to anything but disaster in next spring’s presidential and legislative elections; abandoning your own voters in a hunt for center and center-right votes is a puzzling strategy at best. Meanwhile, the disarray of France’s peuple de gauche, organized labor’s waning influence, and the increasingly violent character of social protest suggest that traditional instances of civil society and forms of social and political mobilization are increasingly ineffective in mediating social discontent. The government’s stark anti-union rhetoric and its resort to brutal police methods are equally troubling. As an anxious France struggles with terrorism, as its right-wing leaders flirt with populist and xenophobic demons and an increasingly confident far right, the left’s incapacity to reinvent itself points to a fraying of France’s social and political fabric. There is little here for believers in social democracy to take heart in.

Paul Cohen is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.

1. The “Plan Juppé” consisted of several distinct reforms: raising the retirement age for public sector workers; increasing healthcare costs borne by patients, as well as increasing social insurance taxes; a freeze on family support benefits; and the institution of annual parliamentary oversight of the entire social security system (which consists of medical, unemployment, pension, disability, and family allowance insurance). To bring the strikes to a close, the Juppé government abandoned all proposed measures with the exception of the measure imposing parliamentary oversight of the social security system. Since 1996, the French parliament votes each year a law defining a series of objectives for social security spending and deficits, though there are no mechanisms for enforcing that these objectives are respected. This was nonetheless far from an anodyne measure, as it helped shift control over the welfare state system away from the unions and employer federations who had co-managed it, thus betraying the spirit of the social democratic architecture of France’s postwar welfare state.

2. A report prepared earlier this year by he Inspection générale des affaires sociales, a French government administration charged with monitoring and overseeing labor and welfare programs, found that the thirty-five-hour workweek law had created 350,000 jobs over four years (for reasons that remain unclear, the IGAS’s director hushed the report, and its text was leaked to the press in July). The report, “Évaluation des politiques d’aménagement-réduction du temps de travail dans la lutte contre le chômage” (May 2016), can be consulted here. On the report’s history, see “Selon un rapport censué de l’Igas, les 35 heures ont créée 350.000 emplois,” Libération (July 18, 2016).

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