Government labour market reform has triggered a nationwide wave of protests in France that highlight how traditional labour unions have joined forces with more modern anti-establishment radicals. The situation increases the risk of violent unrest and underscores soaring tensions within French society.
There are few other places in Western Europe like France where leftist political and social movements try to actively rebuke efforts to reform the labour market. Unions and political parties with historical socialist affiliations comprise the bulk of the opposition to reforms required by France for a free-market, liberal economy.
Traditional labour movement joins with radicals
France is traditionally more subject to large-scale labour strikes and demonstrations than its European neighbours. The conjunction of the post-1968 protest movements and well-structured labour unions has led to the development of a leftist worker-oriented conservative movement.
The revolutionary cadres of the sixties and seventies have shifted targets and no longer see capitalism as the source of all evil. Instead, they are diametrically opposed to liberal economic principles. This combination of unions and social protest movements began its latest show-of-force in February 2016, as the government began to pass labour market reforms.
Since protests began, a major and relatively new anti-government movement has arisen. France’s most recent wave of demonstrations is based on the traditional General Confederation of Labour (CGT)-led, anti-reform unionism with a modern anti-establishment push. In late April and early May the situation spiralled out of control, showing its true colours with an increase in violent unrest, in which traditional left-wing conservatives marched side by side with a new type of anti-establishment radicals informed by austerity, and the Euro Crisis.
Anti-reform protests highlight structural risks
Firstly, far-left movements have increasingly managed to lead protests over environmental and social issues. This has been the case especially since 2011 and the occupation of the Sivens Dam and the area in the vicinity of Notre Dame des Landes. In these two instances, far-left anti-government movements established strongholds and pushed toward prolonged periods of confrontation with police.
A similar strategy was seen in the way radical leftists infiltrated the Calais migrant camps and repeatedly clashed with security forces throughout 2015.
The growing role played by radical leftists in the protest scene is coupled with heightened social discontent. Since the beginning of Francois Hollande’s mandate in May 2012, several unrelated waves of anti-governments demonstrations have highlighted increasing frustration among large parts of French society. In January 2014, thousands of leftist radicals marched alongside neo-fascists in an “anger day” held nationwide, in which hundreds screamed ‘death to the Jews’ in the streets of Paris.
Furthermore, on multiple occasions during the summer of 2015, farmers blocked large parts of the country in protest against their deteriorating economic situation. These instances of violence underscore three aspects of France’s structural issues: a mounting disenchantment with government, a worrying rift within national society, and the growing use of violence during protests.
Said radicalisation of anti-government attitudes is being capitalized on by labour unions, as they have adopted communication and operational strategies more in line with far-left radical movements. Specifically, these strategies use inflammatory discourse aimed at igniting class-based tensions, coupled with a modern (post-9/11, post-Snowden) opposition to police and security forces.
The radicalisation of the CGT has been an ongoing trend that came to light in October 2015, when unionised employees temporarily detained and physically abused Air France managers. The anti-police element of the crisis was highlighted by CGT-sponsored posters issued in April 2016, which fuelled radical discourse among protesters against security services.
This conjunction of traditional labour unions and modern, disenfranchised, radical leftists is playing against the backdrop of an authority crisis within France’s political sphere. President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls have among the lowest approval rates of any leader since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Overall the Hollande government is greatly discredited among the general public, with the country facing a sense of widespread fatalism regarding the competence of France’s traditional parties.
Aware of the government’s shortcomings and the Socialist Party’s infighting, the CGT is likely to expand its protest movement and step up the pressure in its ongoing show-of-force. Given the lack of a strong and cohesive moderate political voice, the current power struggle over labour market reforms is likely to further contribute to the radicalisation of the French electorate.
France faces a bleak outlook
In the coming weeks, the wave of protests and episodes of violent unrest is likely to continue, as unions try to gain political legitimacy by opposing the government. While the contentious labour market reform is expected to pass, the fight between Paris and the CGT et al. will leave lasting scars in the French political sphere.
It will further raise questions concerning the France’s ability to carry out much needed economic and financial reforms. It also underscores the limits of the current state of emergency in providing security at mass rallies. However, the most impactful result of this crisis will likely be the substantial radicalisation of labour unions and the coalition of leftist conservatives with anti-government radicals.
Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.