PARIS: Victories for ordinary people are rare and rarer still in our times dominated as they are by Money and Strongmen. In France - where I write these lines - the President Emmanuel Macron has decided to whittle away the protections for the French working-class.
These are hard-won gains, basic rights to enhance the lives of the French people against the pressures of work to make a living. These rights include overtime pay and vacation time, both barriers against the push from employers to make their employees enchained to their desks and their machines.
Macron takes his orders from the French employers’ association (Medef), which has long been eager to cut unemployment and medical insurance, demolish vocational training schemes, prevent subsidies for housing and annul the minimum wage provisions.
Cleverly, Medef hides behind rhetoric of individual advancement. For instance, it does not say that it wants to cut unemployment insurance so as to decrease its own contributions to the well-being of the population. Rather, it suggests that if the workers do not pay into the insurance scheme, they will have more money in their pockets for consumption. But, of course, this also means that when they are unemployed, there will be no mechanism to help them get by.
Macron- elected as the antidote to the cruel populism of the National Front - has made it central to his agenda to squeeze the lives of the French population, particularly the workers.There is nothing of the old liberalism in Macron - none of the patriotic calls upon all classes to sacrifice their gains for the greater good of French national investment in infrastructure and social development.
No call on French corporations or its elites to pay more in taxes or to take less in profits, no desire to consider the difficulties of the people in times of economic insecurity and cultural mayhem. None of that. The textbook is written by economists driven by the cliched view that Growth is King, and that freeing up the animal spirits of capitalism by ending social protections to workers will speed up the sluggish French economy.
But here is where things get interesting. The OECD - Europe’s economic ‘think tank’ - looked closely at the Macron reforms and found that these would not have a substantial impact on growth rates. They would certainly increase France’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 0.4% over the next decade - which is a minuscule increase of GDP compared to the social costs that the population will bear.
Other tools remain for the Macron government, but its prejudices against government borrowing - egged on by the IMF - prevent it from going in that direction. For instance, with effectively zero interest rates and low inflation, the government could easily borrow money to finance investment and improve the employment situation (with unemployment rates hovering near 10%). But the prejudice against public borrowing to generate economic growth is so strong that Macron has not even entertained the idea.
Even more vulgar is the claim that the French state has no more money to shore up the depleted social schemes for the French people. Almost a decade ago - during the financial crisis - the French state hastily raised over 360 billion euros to gift to the private banks. ‘Nothing must be spared to prevent the crisis from worsening further’, said Nikolas Sarkozy at that time. But the crisis of the French people is not be treated with such urgency. It is they who will be forced to pay to shore up collapsing social institutions, such as insurance schemes and pensions.
There is no room for a ‘French’ conversation - led by Macron - about economic stagnation. The arrow pointed straight at the French workers, who continue to be asked to sacrifice in order to shore up a leaking ship.
In a small communist-led town in southern France, there is shrug of indifference to the turn of events. Hope springs eternal that the protests that have been taking place in the big cities - notably in Paris - will stay Macron’s hand. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people came onto the French streets to block the reforms proposed by the French President Francois Hollande.
The nightly gatherings in Paris’ Place de la République - the Nuit Debout protests -did force Hollande to back off, and substantially dented his political career. The temptation to send in the riot police under the ‘state of emergency’ laws was great, but Hollande saw the writing on the wall. He withdrew and his protege Macron took to the stage. So that shrug comes for good reason - if the reforms could be blocked in 2016, why not in 2017?
Matters are so ugly that now Hollande has criticized Macron for the ‘useless sacrifices’ demanded by these labor reforms.
What some people fear is that if Macron and the Medef get their way, then the immiseration of the French people will accelerate and so will the popularity of the fascistic National Front. The main opponents of the labor law are not the National Front but the left-wing union (CGT) and the left political parties.
They are the ones who have made the calls for the protest on September 12 - which was very powerful - and for September 23. While the left has been effective in its opposition to these neo-liberal reforms, it has been less successful in converting this opposition into electoral gain. A new poll by Ifop-Fiducial underlines this problem.
It finds that the left politician Jean Luc Melanchon is seen as a protester and not a governor. ‘Melenchon is very much on the protest front’, says Frederic Dab of Ifop, ‘but he is not seen as an actual alternative’ to the presidency of Macron. This is a great vulnerability for the left.
Melanchon’s party has only 17 of 577 members of the French parliament. They can make noise, but they will not be able to define the way ahead.
Meanwhile, in Sikar (Rajasthan), the farmers led by the All-India Kisan Sabha fought a thirteen day protracted struggle against the government to win basic reforms. It was a difficult fight, with police crackdowns and media indifference attempting to break the will of the strikers. But the farmer prevailed.
The farmers merely wanted the government to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, which had been set-up to help guide the government to prevent more farmers’ suicides (thus far, over 300,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves due directly to neoliberal reforms in agricultural policy).
These farmers - carrying the Red Flag of the Kisan Sabha and the Communist movement - used the technique of the mahapadav (sit in) to stop local governments from operating and to paralyze the state. The government had no choice. They could not very well kill the majority of the farming community. They had to negotiate, and because the farmers held their own, they had to settle on the side of the farmers’ demands. The Kisan Sabha suggested that this victory might ‘inspire similar struggles across the country’.
Perhaps if the French workers hear about this struggle and its victory, it might inspire them in their own battles. It might help them tell their leadership that no country can grow if it cannibalizes its people.
(Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut).