BY DEBBIE DELANGE AND JONATHAN SILBERMAN
PARIS - Thousands of people took to the streets throughout France January 17 in the latest wave of protests against unemployment. Marches and other actions took place in 40 cities. Altogether some 50,000 people participated in this "day of action," according to press reports that used estimates by the police. They included 4,000 in Toulouse, 3,000 in Nantes, and 1,800 in Lille. About 1,500 protested in each of the cities of Bordeaux, Le Havre, Le Mans, and Montpellier. Marches of 1,000 took place in Grenoble, Clermont-Ferrand, Quimper, Cherbourg, Rouen, and Caen. Organizers said the numbers were larger.
The biggest action was a lively protest in Paris of some 20,000 people, according to the sponsors.
Joblessness, at the record high of 12.4 percent, has become the focus of broad discontent here. Many unemployed workers are also angry that the social-democratic led government of Lionel Jospin has not kept its promises to create jobs or provide adequate relief for those out of work. According to public opinion polls, some 70 percent of people in France sympathize with the protests, which have included occupations of state social security offices, prominent academic and financial institutions, and department stores throughout the country.
The demands of the protesters center on increasing the minimum unemployment benefits and the minimum wage, currently about $600 per month. They also include an immediate cash payment to ease the conditions of the unemployed. Six million workers are paid at or below these "social minima."
In response, the government declared immediate assistance of a billion French francs (US$150 million). This amounts to about $45 per person for unemployed workers. On January 12 the government's minister for employment and solidarity, Martine Aubry of the Socialist Party, invited representatives of the organizations leading the protests for talks.
The government says that greater concessions are not possible in 1998. It justifies this by arguing that the type of benefits protesters demand will increase the budget deficit, at a time when the government is preparing for the single European currency, the "euro," planned to be launched in less than a year. According to the criteria laid down in the Maastricht agreement, entry into the projected European Monetary Union is conditional upon a budget deficit of less than 3 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product.
Stalinists, Greens support cop assault
The French Communist Party and Greens, both partners of the Socialist Party in the coalition government, have stated their support for the demands of the protest campaign. At the same time, leaders of these parties backed Jospin in sending the riot police to evict those occupying the social security offices, known as Assedic.
The government sent the militarized CRS riot police to oust the protesters January 10. Government officials rushed to issue public statements backing the cop attack, including Jospin; Jean-Claude Gayssot, minister of transport and a leader of the Communist Party; and Dominique Voynet, environment minister and leader of the Greens.
`Employed in solidarity with jobless'
Many individuals and groups of friends took part in the January 17 march here with their own hand-made placards and banners. Antoine Cicolella, 28, and three companions marched behind such a banner that read: "Employed youth in solidarity with the unemployed." Cicolella said that the four were on a government scheme that provides unemployed young people with a job for a year. The contracts are renewable for up to a maximum of five years. "Madame Aubry has agreed to a program of 350,000 of such jobs," Cicolella said. "But what happens at the end of the five years?"
"These government schemes don't provide real jobs," stated Sophie Deleage. "They're a way of hiding unemployment."
Pierre Yves, a young worker and a member of Young Socialists Movement, the ruling SP's youth organization, said he thought that reducing the workweek is key to tackling unemployment. "There's money to do it but the government's proposed 35-hour workweek is not what's needed. It will be combined with flexibility, the annualization of hours, and will exclude many people."
Didier Niot, 36, was on his first demonstration of the current campaign and was mad. "I am a skilled worker and I've been unemployed for three years," he said. "You've got to protest such things, but I'm not sure what will happen. I don't think the employers will allow Jospin to solve unemployment because they need joblessness desperately. It's in their interests." Niot was referring to a document signed by five employers' associations objecting to the government's proposed legislation on the 35-hour workweek, even though Jospin's plan is not to take effect for a few years.
Jean-Louis, a worker in a post office depot, said that he considered casual work to be a central issue. "There were 60,000 précaires (temporary workers) in the postal service at the end of 1996," he said. They earn just 4,000FF per month ($600)." He related the story of a successful strike at his depot to win permanent status for a temporary worker who was being laid off.
Immigrants put mark on marches
A particularly striking feature of the demonstration was the participation of more than 1,000 immigrant workers and youth grouped in contingents. They were organized by the Sans Papiers (without papers) of St. Bernard, which campaigns for the rights of undocumented workers; the Movement of Immigration and Suburbs, which campaigns against the double punishment of detention and deportation that's meted out to immigrants; and Droit Devant, which helps immigrants get papers.
Akib Mohammed, a 21-year-old unemployed worker, explained how difficult it is for Algerian youth like him to get work. When you graduate from school, it's very difficult to find a job, he said. It's important to unite immigrants and French- born workers, and fight against racism, he added, because "unemployment affects everyone."
The Sans Papiers contingent chanted "All together for rights - undocumented, homeless, and jobless!" One of their leaders, Madjiguene Cissé, of Senegalese origin, took up this theme when she addressed the march at the end. "The fight against unemployment and in defense of immigrants goes together. It's a fight against division and against being excluded. Immigrants are invariably the first to be thrown out of work and the Chevenement law will lead to more sans papiers. It's important for us to stick together and to wage the struggle in the streets."
"I think it's vital to explain that unemployment is not caused by immigration," said Patrick Vachon, a rail worker from Paris. Vachon said he was the only worker from his rail depot on the march. Many workers today are susceptible to the chauvinist arguments that unemployment is caused by immigration, he said. These France First arguments are pushed both by right-wing politicians and by social democrats and Stalinists. "But even if there was no immigration there would still be unemployment," Vachon said.
The protests have been led by a coalition of four organizations that campaign for jobs, against casual work, for better pay and conditions for low paid workers, and higher benefits for the unemployed. These are Action Against Unemployment (AC!), a coalition principally of trade union activists; the unemployed committees of the CGT trade union federation, in whose leadership the Communist Party has major influence; the Communist Party-led Association for Employment, Information and Solidarity (APEIS); and the National Movement of Unemployed and Casual Workers (MNCP).
Coalition of four protest groups
Contingents from these organizations headed up the Paris march on January 17. Each had their own placards. The AC! placards read, "35 hours: less unemployment. 32 hours: no unemployment." "No to casual jobs. Yes to permanent contracts," read the placards of the CGT contingent, which was the largest of the four with more than 1,000 demonstrators.
The leadership of the pro-Socialist Party CFDT has publicly opposed the unemployment campaign. Writing in the federation's weekly paper, Syndicalisme (Trade Unionism), employment spokesperson Michel Jalmain denounced the campaign as a maneuver directed against the CFDT and its general secretary Nicole Notat. Notat also functions as president of the joint union-employer-government organization, Unedic, that runs social security.
Also opposed to the campaign is the leadership of Force Ouvriere (FO), the other main union federation. FO general secretary Marc Blondel argues that the protests divide the employed from the unemployed, claiming that demands of the jobless are inevitably directed against those who have a job.
Nationalism of ultraright and `left'
While the January 17 marches were going on, the fascist National Front, headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, held its national convention in Lyon. In a press conference prior to the convention, Le Pen said the National Front distinguished between the leaders of the campaign against unemployment - who he denounced as the "CP and their Trotskyist epigones" - and the "unfortunate French people" who are silent. Attempting to drive a wedge between "French" and foreign-born workers, Le Pen claims "hard- working people" have to pay high taxes to finance the benefits for the unemployed. The Front says that unemployment can only be understood in the context of globalization -that is of immigration and "free trade." The rightist organization calls for protectionism, repatriation of immigrants, and the easing of taxes on small proprietors as a solution to unemployment.
The main headline of the January 14 Minute, an ultrarightist paper supportive of Le Pen but not directly linked to the National Front, was: "One billion for the unemployed - 300 billion for immigrants."
Some of the groups that took part in the Paris demonstration played right into nationalist, anti-immigrant stance of the National Front. Republican Initiative (RI), a party formed in 1996, sported flags in red, white, and blue. Asked if these weren't the colors of French nationalism, spokesperson Tomas Urbitzondo said they were the colors of the "French republic." Urbitzondo said that a "major, national debate" on immigration is needed. "The French economy is not able to support new immigration. There must be entry controls, of course."
Urbitzondo said IR rejected the view that immigrants should be forcibly repatriated, or encouraged to leave, but if they wished to return to their country of origin, "the government should give financial help." The two main partners in the governing coalition, the SP and the Communist Party, have consistently supported restrictions on immigration.
Debbie Delange is a member of the Amalgamated Engineering
and Electrical Union in Manchester, England. Jonathan Silberman
is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union in
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