May Day demonstrations in France denounce proposed labor law changes

Five hundred thousand workers and students in France took part in 300 May Day rallies, marches, and demonstrations protesting so-called labor reforms that the country’s Socialist government has proposed.

Parliament on Tuesday will begin debate on the proposed changes.

The government says that labor law reforms are needed to reduce the county’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate.

But the proposals are widely unpopular, especially among young people who fear that the new laws will make their jobs more precarious.

The proposals have sparked a mass uprising of young people, whose nascent movement is called Nuit Debout (Standing Together Through the Night). It resembles the global Occupy movement of 2011.

The changes proposed by the government are designed to make the country’s labor market more flexible.

But according to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “labor market flexibility” is just another way of saying that “it should be easier to fire employees” and “lower wages.”

France’s hard-won labor laws help protect workers’ wages, working conditions, and job security.

Many see them as a strong buttress against the insecurities inherent in a capitalist economy. Recent polls show that 58 percent of respondents opposed the government’s proposed changes.

The government is proposing changes that would make it easier for employers to avoid paying overtime for work in excess of 35 hours a week, weaken unions’ bargaining power, and weaken employment contracts that provide a modicum of job security.

The government’s labor reforms are in line with the conventional wisdom that labor laws that actually protect labor are bad for business and are thus the cause of high unemployment.

But according to Weisbrot, “the available economic research provides little or no evidence for this argument.”

“For example, there is no relationship between the amount of employment protection in different countries and their unemployment rate,” writes Weisbrot. . .  There are “a number of countries with high levels of labor market protections and low levels of unemployment: Austria (5.2 percent), Denmark (4.4 percent), Ireland (4.3 percent), the Netherlands (4.6 percent), and Norway (4.5 percent).”

Perhaps one of the most contentious pieces of the government’s proposal would make it easier to fire workers, especially those 26 years of age and younger.

The government argues that if it were easier to fire young workers, then employers will be more likely to hire more young workers.

This logic confounds many of the young people who have taken to the streets to protest the reforms.


On March 31, 1.2 million workers and students marched and rallied to protest the government’s proposals.

Since then, demonstrations have been taking place on a weekly basis.

In some of these demonstrations, rage against the proposals resulted in conflicts between youthful demonstrators and the police.

That rage has also manifested itself in other ways, most notably the rise of Nuit Debout, an activist movement of young people who gather in city squares at night to stand in unity with each other.

At these gatherings, people discuss and debate strategies and tactics for fighting the government’s labor reform proposals, but these debates and discussions are also more wide ranging.

Topics include a number of social justice issues such as the treatment of immigrants, inequality, a guaranteed minimum income, and more.

While the government tries to justify its labor reforms as a way to help young people enter the labor market, youth in Nuit Debout want more than low paying, precarious work.

As Adam Nossiter of the New York Times writes, the youth of Nuit Debout “want what (their) parents have, and then some.”

The youth of Nuit Debout showed up at the May Day demonstrations ready to fight to maintain labor rights guaranteed by the law and for more.

CGT, France’s largest labor confederation and one of the organizers of the May Day demonstrations, echoed this sentiment.

May Day is just the start of a month of struggle against the labor reforms and for a more just society, said CGT in its May Day statement. It also will be a month when young people, wage earners, and others  intensify the fight “for social progress” and to improve “the lives of each and everyone.”


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