Saturday, October 14, 2017

France: Close to half a million workers join public sector strike

Lisbeth Latham

Hundreds of thousands of workers, retirees and students joined a third day of strikes and protests across France on October 10. The protests are part of ongoing efforts by unions, left parties and progressive organisations to defeat attacks on workers and the public service by President Emmanuel Macron.

Protests were held in 140 cities and towns and drew 400,000 people into the streets.

At the centre of the day was a strike called by the nine union confederations active in France's public sector. The strike was aimed at stopping the planned 120,000 job cuts in the sector.

The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) estimated participation of 30-50% across the public sector.

While the mobilised numbers sound impressive, the movement is struggling to build momentum. The mobilisations on October 10 were slightly smaller than those on September 12, although larger than the September 21 mobilisations.

More importantly, the current movement is small compared to recent mass labour mobilisations in France.

Last year's movement against the El Khomri labour laws peaked with two national mobilisations of more than one million people. The movements in 2009 and 2010 saw multiple united mobilisations that drew more than three million people into the streets.

There are several reasons for the smaller mobilisations.

One of these has been the government's use of France's undemocratic constitution to rush through emergency ordinances without a parliamentary vote. This has reduced the extent to which people see attempts to defeat the attacks as realistic. (There will be a vote on Macron’s anti-worker laws in late November, more than two months after the ordinances came into effect)

The trade union Solidaires argued in a statement on October 12 that the present mobilisations demonstrate a widespread willingness to mobilise against the laws. However, the ability to fully engage that willingness has been undermined by divisions within the union movement as to what parts of the laws should be opposed and how they should be opposed.

The leaderships of reformist union confederations such as the French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT) have been broadly supportive of sections of the legislation.

Rather than call on members to join mobilisations, they have sought to engage in dialogue with the government regarding the text of the ordinances. They have expressed concern that mobilisations against the ordinances would undermine future negotiations with the government.

The more militant unions have instead pushed a line of rejecting the changes and mobilising workers in the streets. However, they have done so inconsistently and in ways that have not taken full advantage of breaks in the CFDT's approach.

For example, when CFDT's rail federation, along with Solidaires' rail federation, called for a strike on October 10 in support of the public sector strike, the CGT's rail federation – the largest union in the railways – refused to join the strike. Instead, it encouraged members to join the protests, meaning the strike had minimal impact on rail services.

Divisions within the movement are not just a symptom of differing assessments of the attacks and how best to fight them. They also reflect a jockeying for positions by the confederations in anticipation of union representation elections next year.

The CFDT has historically been France's second confederation behind the CGT. Today it is either the principle confederation, or at least challenging for that position in the majority of industries.

CFDT officials pointed out at mass meetings of tens of thousands of activists and officials on October 3 that they believe the current moderate approach will strengthen the CFDT’s hand in the elections.
However, the New Anti-Capitalist Party reported on October 6 that CFDT’s leaders had to spend much of those meetings defending their conservative line from criticisms from the ranks.

One positive development has been that leaders from France’s union confederations held a joint meeting on October 9. This is the first such meeting to be held during the current campaign, despite calls by Solidaires for a joint meeting since May.

Unfortunately, the meeting did not issue a joint call for united mobilisation, although Solidaires suggested that in addition to themselves, the CGT and the United Union Federation, which have all been actively pushing for joint mobilisation, there is also support for such a call from Workers Force and the French Confederation of Management – General Confederation of Executives.

The meeting did support a call for a further meeting of union leaderships on October 24, which will take stock of the full range of social attacks coming from the government. Solidaires leaders have expressed hope that the meeting will call a joint mobilisation for early November.

On October 9, the CGT called a confederation-wide strike for October 19. CGT national secretary Fabrice Angei said in a statement: “Our citizens are increasingly challenging the orders, 65% of them reject them and 57% approve of the mobilisations against the government project … the government is conducting a comprehensive deconstruction of the French social model.

“We will mobilise on October 19 against this social destruction, and for a 32-hour week, salary increases and retirement for all via mutualisation”.

Solidaires issued a statement on October 12 in support of the October 19 mobilisation, arguing that it is an opportunity to build public awareness and unify and strengthen the unions’ bases of support in the public and private sector in order to better challenge the government.


[Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1157]


Friday, October 13, 2017

Beyond the survey, building the struggle for queer rights

Lisbeth Latham

While the marriage equality campaign is currently focused on maximising a Yes response in the national survey, supporters of marriage equality and of LGBTI rights more generally need to look beyond the horizon of the survey itself.

This is because a majority Yes in the survey will not definitively resolve the question of marriage equality and because there are many other challenges facing the LGBTI community, particularly around legal rights.

The national survey closes on November 7, with results due to be announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on November 15. The ABS has said the number of returns in the survey is higher than anticipated. At the start of the campaign there had been a fear of complacency, but the higher than expected returns, along with polls continuing to show high levels of support for marriage equality, are both positive signs for a strong Yes response.

However, a Yes response, no matter how strong, does not guarantee that a marriage equality bill will be introduced to parliament, nor that there will sufficient support in parliament for it to pass.
Importantly, it is clear that the right, aware that the survey has not allowed them to defeat the push for marriage equality, is now seeking ways to undermine the language of any enabling legislation. This push would enshrine "religious freedom" in any marriage equality bill, which would dramatically expand in what circumstances "religious" individuals could legally discriminate against people they believe are in a same sex relationship.

The campaign must build pressure for a bill to be put and ensure it contains no expansion in religious exemptions to anti-discrimination acts.

Moving beyond the fight for marriage equality, there are several important legal rights and protections that need to be won to ensure violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTI community no longer have legal sanction in Australia. These include:

  • Ending of the gay/trans panic defence, which remains on the books in South Australia;
  • Prohibiting unnecessary surgical or other medical treatment of intersex children, including forced coercive interventions, until they reach an age at which they can provide their free, prior and informed consent;
  • Establishing a national standard for gender recognition that has no requirement beyond an affirmed decision of the individual. At present only the ACT and SA do not require trans individuals to undergo surgery prior to achieving gender recognition, but they still require a statement that the individual has had clinical treatment by an Australian psychologist or psychiatrist. This stigmatises and pathologises trans experiences, although not as much as in other states;
  • Rolling back the religious exemptions to the Anti-Discrimination laws in all Australian jurisdictions;
  • Ensuring that oppression on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity are grounds for asylum and that this is not based on individuals proving that they are sufficiently queer;
  • Enshrining the right for trans and non-binary individuals to use public facilities that correspond with their affirmed gender identity;
  • Enabling individuals under the age of 18 to affirm their gender at school and have this affirmation respected and protected, without requiring formal gender recognition but giving them the right to change their gender marker if they choose;
  • Ending the requirement for transgender minors to go to the Family Court to access hormones. Australia is the only jurisdiction with such a requirement, which creates a significant and unnecessary barrier to transgender individuals affirming their gender in the way they wish. Medical support with informed consent of the minor should be sufficient, as it is with accessing contraceptive pills.
Any victory for marriage equality will see the right push back on other issues concerning the rights of the LGBTI community. This push back must be firmly resisted.

We must demand the reinstatement of funding for Safe Schools and push for its expansion to more schools. Equally importantly, we should defend the rights of gender non-conforming children, including the ending of gender-based uniform restrictions — restricting dresses to "girls" and pants/shorts to "boys" places bizarre restrictions on how children and adolescents are able to choose their school clothes.

The campaign to build the strongest possible support for Yes in the survey is important work.

However, if the horizons of the LGBTI communities and their supporters do not reach beyond this objective then we risk losing an opportunity to make significant strides in the rights and abilities of members of the community to live their authentic lives.


[This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1157]


Friday, October 6, 2017

France: Movement builds against anti-worker measures

Lisbeth Latham

France’s Council of Ministers approved five ordinances on September 22 that undermine union power and employment rights within France’s Labour Code, which came into effect the next day.

The government imposed these changes by using undemocratic measures in France’s constitution, which allows it to push new measures into law without passing legislation through parliament.

In the face of this, the movement against the changes continues to build. 

France Insoumise (France Unbowed, FI) held a national convergence in Paris on September 23 against what it described as a “social coup”. The protest mobilised 150,000 people — more than twice the size of the largest Paris mobilisation so far against these attacks.

FI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd: “We were not able to discuss a single line, a single page, of the ordinances!”

The Washington Post reported that Melenchon said “we must bring forward the strength of our people in battle and in the streets”.

On September 26 the transport federations of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), Workers’ Force (FO) and National Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA) began sustained strike action against the changes, including blockades of oil depots and major highways. As a result, there have been widespread petrol shortages at service stations.

On September 28, there were mobilisations across France by retired workers and students. These protests targeted the changes to the labour code, but also the broader assault by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe on social conditions.

In particular, protesters targeted the 1.7% rise in the Generalised Social Contribution (CSG) and the failure of thousands of students to receive selection advice for entry into university. The CSG contributes to the funding of France’s social security system and is paid by both workers and retirees.
Macron and France’s peak employer organisation, MEDEF, hoped that worker and union resistance would dissipate with the ordinances coming into effect. Macron has downplayed the significance of the movement, telling CNN: “I believe in democracy” and that “democracy is not in the street”.

Instead, the resistance continues to grow.

Unions have called for a joint public and private sector strike on October 10. This will be the first joint strike by France’s public sector unions in 10 years.

Unfortunately, the unity between unions within the public sector has not been replicated in the private sector. An October 3 mass meeting of 10,000 officials and activists of the conservative French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT), the largest confederation in the private sector, refused to endorse strike action on October 10.

However, there was opposition to this conservative approach expressed at the October 3 meeting, which could result in more CFDT members joining the October 10 protests than occurred with the previous France-wide protests against the attacks on September 12 and 21.
[This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1156]


Saturday, September 23, 2017

France: Thousands join new round of protests against anti-worker attacks

Lisbeth Latham

About 250,000 people joined 400 protests in cities and towns across France on September 21, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) said, in the second round of mass protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-worker laws.

This was about half the number of people who mobilised for the first round of protests and strikes on September 12. The protests came the day before a meeting of the Council of Ministers to ratify five ordinances, which will undermine the rights of workers and their unions.

If ratified, the ordinances will immediately come into effect. However, the government will still need to pass legislation to permanently incorporate them into France’s Labour Law.

Much of the mainstream media has expressed hope that the lower turnout for the September 21 protests is a sign of the movement quickly losing momentum. Left unions and parties, however, remain optimistic that the movement can continue to build and beat back the current attacks.

CGT leaders described September 21 as a success and proof “that after September 12, the movement is for the long-term”.

In a statement, the CGT said: “The Council of Ministers of September 22 must hear that the citizens overwhelmingly condemn and reject the reform of the labour law and regressive government measures for young people, employees of private and public companies, retirees and the self-employed.”

The smaller scale of the mobilisations was expected. There were several factors that made larger mobilisations on September 21 unlikely.

One factor was that it was held so close to the first day of protest. Nonetheless, holding a second day of action the day prior to the Council of Ministers meeting was important to demonstrate clear opposition to the ordinances.

A second factor, particularly in Paris, was that the left-wing group France Insoumise (France Unbowed) had called for a mobilisation against the laws for September 23. It is bussing in activists from across France for the protests on a day that allows people to demonstrate without missing a day of work.

A third factor is that, at present, the mobilisations are supported by a minority of unions — primarily the CGT and the trade union Solidaires. The other union confederations have not been supporting the mobilisations, although some federations and regional unions have backed the protests.

There are, however, signs this could be changing. In the lead-up to and after September 12, a number of French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) federations and regional leaders expressed frustration at the CFDT leadership’s refusal to support the movement.

This frustration will have been furthered by the publication in the left-wing daily Liberation of an agreement between France’s five main confederations, including the CFDT, regarding “red lines” which the confederations would not accept the legislation crossing. The government has now crossed them, with little or no objection from the more conservative unions.

There are now signs that these unions are starting to be drawn into the movement. La Figaro reported on September 20 that after a breakdown in talks with the government, Workers’ Force (FO) and the National Union of Autonomous Workers (UNSA) have joined the CGT in calling for an indefinite road transport strike against the new labour laws.

The CGT has expressed a desire to extend the strike to waste collection, as well as passenger and urban transport.

Also on September 18, all nine union confederations represented in France’s public service announced a united strike for October 10 against pay freezes and the government’s planned cutting of 120,000 jobs. This will be the first joint strike in the French public sector for 10 years.

These developments give credence to the CGT’s hopes that the movement is on the rise.


This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1154


Friday, September 22, 2017

Why marriage equality is union business

Lisbeth Latham

In the lead up to and following the announcement of the plebiscite, now survey, on changing the Marriage Act, unions have played a prominent role in promoting and resourcing the Yes campaign.

Senior union officials have been speakers at rallies, there have been large union contingents at protest marches and unions — especially peak bodies such as Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Australian Council of Trade Unions — have been providing infrastructure to help build the capacity for the campaign to ensure maximum participation and support for the Yes side.

This strong position in support of marriage equality has attracted criticism from some union members as both a distraction from the “core business” of unions — wages and conditions — and as a failure by unions to “respect the views of members who are opposed to marriage equality”.

However, support by unions for marriage equality is consistent with long traditions within the labour movement of solidarity with oppressed and marginalised communities, and in support of democratic rights — approaches that help to build and strengthen the capacity of the union movement to win improvements for members, not just on the job, but throughout society.

Examples of the kinds of criticisms that unions supporting marriage equality have received can be seen on a recent post on the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union’s (CFMEU) Construction & General Division’s Facebook page of an email to the union by a member.

The email was from a gay CFMEU member thanking the union for taking a strong position in support of marriage equality and for organising a toolbox discussion around the issue on their worksite. It also raised concerns about the homophobic behaviour by some workmates during the discussion.

At the time of writing, this post has been shared 204 times and had attracted 123 comments. While the vast majority of these comments have been positive, there have been negative commenters who argue that the CFMEU’s support for marriage equality is a distraction from the union achieving improvements in wages and conditions for members and a violation of the rights of those members who do not support marriage equality.

These criticisms are not new and reflect a conservative view of unionism in which the role of the union in the lives of its members starts and finishes at the entrance to the workplace and unions should not seek to mobilise its members and resources on broader political questions.

The current Marriage Act and the No campaign are having a negative impact on the working lives of LGBTI union members. The act denies these union members of fundamental rights and the “debate” around the survey is contributing to a toxic culture where a section of society feel justified in vilifying LGBTI people in the street and in the workplace.

This alone is a strong basis for unions to support their members and push for marriage equality as it is the embodiment of the core union tenant that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

Moreover as, CFMEU South Australia branch secretary Aaron Cartlege said in his address to the marriage equality rally in Adelaide: “Why does the CFMEU back the Yes vote? I'll tell you why we back the Yes vote ... for 15 years we’ve been campaigning because we’re discriminated against on building sites with draconian laws that target our members every day.

“How can we be calling for ‘one law for all’ and then have a different view when it comes to this?"

The conservative vision of unionism runs counter to the long tradition within Australian unionism, particularly within left unions such as the CFMEU, which sees the union movement as having a vital role to play in building a better world for all workers.

This vision has seen Australian unions actively campaign around issues affecting working people globally: opposition to conscription; refusing to load pig iron destined for the Japanese war machine that had invaded China; refusing to load Dutch ships in support of the Indonesian national liberation struggle; supporting striking Aboriginal pastoral workers and the struggle of Aboriginal land rights; opposition to South African Apartheid; green bans on developments that robbed communities of environmental and cultural heritage; opposition to Australian involvement in the Vietnam war and the Iraq war; in support of the East Timorese liberation struggle; and in support of the right of refugees to claim asylum in Australia, to name just a few.

These campaigns did not lead directly to improved wages and conditions on the job — but they contributed to the mobilising capacity of unions both on and off the job and helped to build respect within the broader community for the central role that unions play in building a socially just and liveable planet.
For all these reasons marriage equality is union business.


Lisbeth Latham is a member of the Socialist Alliance

This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1154


Saturday, September 16, 2017

How employers are attacking workers

Lisbeth Latham An increasing number of employers are asking themselves why they should have to abide by the terms of an Enterprise Agreement with their workers and unions, when it would cost less money if they didn't. Many have come to the conclusion that they should simply escape the obligations of their agreements.

The problem for workers is that companies who attempt this find that the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and the federal government increasingly support the idea that companies should be able to escape agreements so they can pay their workers to lower wages and have fewer limitations on their management prerogative.

The most recent example of this is the decision by FWC to terminate the Murdoch University Academic and General Staff Enterprise Agreement as of September 26. The effect of this decision, albeit with an undertaking from the employer to maintain wages, leave and other conditions for six months, is:

  • Salaries could fall by between 20% and 39%;
  • Superannuation contributions could fall from 17% to 12.5%;
  • Redundancy payments could fall by at least 33% for academic staff and up to 80% for professional staff;
  • Parental leave could become unpaid leave;
  • Personal leave could fall from 12 days a year to 10;
  • Academic workload regulation could disappear; and
  • Staff will become dependent on promises and policies that the university could change at any time for any reason.
FWC Commissioner BD Williams accepted Murdoch University management’s argument that it is facing serious financial difficulty and that 25 of the agreement’s clauses “were not supportive to Murdoch operating as a flexible and efficient enterprise” and that the termination of the agreement would strengthen the position of Murdoch management to negotiate a new agreement with the clauses it is seeking.
On August 30, federal education minister Simon Birmingham called on all universities to take advantage of this opportunity.
The criteria for seeking the termination of an agreement is extremely limited. The agreement must have passed the nominal expiry date; a genuine attempt must have been made to reach agreement; it needs to be in the public interest; and the commission must consider it appropriate to terminate the agreement.
The “public good” test is increasingly low. The test used in the Murdoch case was the potential impact on the WA state economy if Murdoch wages were to revert to the award. Universities are relatively large employers, but they are still only small components of the total wages paid in any state.
It would seem unlikely that many private employers would have a wage bill large enough to have a major impact on the economy, making the test largely meaningless.

Change the rules

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the ACTU have both rightly pointed to the Murdoch decision as further evidence of the need to change the rules of Australia's industrial relations system.
NTEU WA Division Secretary Gage Gooding said: “The way in which this agreement has been terminated is another example that our laws are badly broken and must change to ensure the just treatment of workers”.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said: “This is the latest in a very long list of companies that have exploited this incredibly destructive precedent set by the Aurizon case at Fair Work. We need immediate action to stop companies completely bypassing the normal bargaining process and reaching for this nuclear option … we need to change the rules so they are not used by employers to blackmail workers into accepting lower pay and job security.”
Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie has announced his intention to introduce a private members bill to ban such “nuclear” terminations of enterprise agreements.
But it is important to note that making it tougher to terminate agreements — or even putting the decision in the hands of workers and their unions — would only close the door on one avenue for employers to seek to massively undermine agreements through reversion to the award. Options such as using labour hire or outsourcing work to contractors would remain and enterprising companies could find further options to escape an agreement.
The fundamental problem is the massive gap between the wages and conditions in the majority of EBAs and the underlying awards and the ways employers can seek to employ new workers paid at the award rate or just above it.
While awards were the primary mechanism of providing employment conditions prior to the introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1993, unions had always been able to secure above award conditions. These conditions could then be incorporated into the underlying award and from there flow onto other awards. This process was central to the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (and its precursors’) “hot shop approach” to collective bargaining.

Gap between enterprise agreements and awards

With the passing of the 1993 Industrial Relations Reform Act and the subsequent Workplace Relations Act the relationship between local conditions and awards became one directional: only awards could affect conditions in an individual workplace not the other way around. This meant that over time there was a gap grew between the wages and conditions in enterprise agreements and the underlying awards.
The gap between enterprise agreements and awards was exacerbated by the Howard government's award stripping, which limited the number and types of matters that could be included in an award. This not only massively increased the gap between awards and agreements, but at a stroke of a pen it stripped hundreds of thousands of workers of rights they had previously won.
Re-establishing a two-way relationship between local working conditions enshrined in an agreement and industry-wide award conditions will not only help protect agreements from being undercut by employers seeking to revert to the award, but also enable the hard work of workers seeking to improve their conditions to flow onto other workers in their industry, helping to build social solidarity and limit the competitive advantage of employers who resist enterprise agreements.
Such a shift would be deeply opposed by employers and would be a fundamental break with the direction and thinking of the FWC and its precursor over the past 25 years. But it would be a significant change that could dramatically improve the working lives of millions of workers.
However, simply changing the rules would not be enough, as history has shown that bodies like the FWC are not neutral umpires who can be relied upon to deliver fairness to working people. Wage justice will require an ongoing movement of working people in support of improved wages and conditions.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1153


Friday, September 15, 2017

France: Mass protests begin against Macron’s attacks

Lisbeth Latham

France’s militant unions held the first major day of protest on September 12 against the ordinances introduced by the government to undermine the country’s labour laws.

Their protests were seen as the start of the campaign to defend workers’ rights. It served as a major test for the capacity of the movement to mobilise working people while France’s unions are divided as to how to respond to the attacks.

The protests included more than 4000 strikes and protests in 200 cities and towns across France. The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) estimated that 500,000 people took part. The largest protests were in Paris and Marseille, where 60,000 marched.

Amid debate over the size and success of the protests, the CGT said in a statement the day was a “veritable success”.

There were a number of factors that made it harder to mobilise workers on September 12 compared with the demonstrations against anti-worker laws last year. The text of the proposed law was published only two weeks before the protest and the divisions in the labour movement are worse than last year.

More conservative federations refused to take part, with only the CGT, United Union Federation (FSU) and the trade union Solidaires supporting the mobilisations.

The September 12 protests were also supported by France’s main university and high school student unions.

However the Workers’ Force (FO) confederation, which supported last year’s protests, refused to call on its members to mobilise. Instead, it has sought to take part in consultations with the government along with the more right-wing Democratic Confederation of French Workers (CFDT) and the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC). The CFDT and CFTC have previously been open to supporting some “liberalisation” of French labour laws.

All three groups have raised concerns about sections of the text. CFDT deputy secretary general Veronique Descacq justified the union’s refusal to mobilise by arguing that changes in the proposed text could be best made through “outreach work with the employees and conveying the unions’ negative opinions in the consultation bodies”.

There are signs, however, that the movement will be able to broaden out beyond France’s militant unions. Sections of the FO and CFDT did call on their members to join the protests.

For instance, secretary-general of the CFDT Metallurgy in Rhone Khaled Boughanmi told Liberation of his support for the protests: “I was elected to reject social decline.”

An important component in the campaign to broaden the movement has been the Social Front, which brings together a range of unions and social movements. It was established in April and initiated the first mobilisations against Emmanuel Macron after his victory in the presidential election.

The Social Front has been central in building smaller mobilisations against Macron and in linking militant forces within the different union confederations.

The Social Front has sought to tap into the widespread antipathy to mainstream politics reflected in the record low participation in the presidential and parliamentary elections, and the ongoing slide in Macron's popularity.

Macron has seen his polularity fall in his first 100 days in office, something which previously occurred only with president Jaques Chirac. City AM reported on August 27 that Macron’s approval rating had fallen to 40% while his disapproval rating had risen to 57%.

Despite this, Macron is persevering with his planned assault on workers’ rights, which he demagogically claims will lower unemployment.

The key changes are:

  • Cutting the number of workplace representatives in small- and medium-sized enterprises by amalgamating existing representative bodies; 
  • Cutting and capping the amount of compensation that workers who have been unfairly dismissed can receive; 
  • Increasing the range of conditions that can be negotiated at the enterprise level, rather than in national or industry-wide agreements. Such conditions can undercut the higher level conditions. Due to changes in the laws last year, a vote on these matters can be initiated with the support of unions representing just 30% of the workforce, even if unions representing more than 50% of workers oppose the agreement (previously these unions would have been able to veto a vote); 
  • Increase the use of fixed-term contracts in preference to permanent employment; 
  • Enable companies to initiate changes to workers’ contracts (even if the company is profitable) and dismiss workers who reject a change (previously such changes required workers’ agreement); 
  • When assessing whether redundancies should go ahead in multinational companies with sites located in France, only the performance of the parts of the company in France will be considered.
There is widespread anger against these attacks, with polls showing most people support the movement against the changes. But successive governments have been able to push through a series of attacks on working people and their unions by staring down protests and relying on the movement collapsing once laws are passed.

This time, Macron is also relying on using France’s undemocratic constitution to use his executive power to put temporary ordinances in place, seeking to pass the legislation through parliament later. The text of the labour ordinances was published on August 31.

The Council of State is expected to approve the labour ordinances on September 22 and the ordinances will take effect from that time. It is unclear when bills converting the ordinances to laws will be introduced to parliament.

To defeat this push, the movement will have to build an escalating campaign — creating the fear in the government’s mind that they might lose control. The next step will be the strikes and protests called by the CGT for September 21 and protests called by Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-wing group France Unbowed (FI) at the Bastille on September 23.

This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1153


Friday, September 1, 2017

Why a Yes response in the survey is not enough

Lisbeth Latham

Ever since it was announced, the federal government’s postal survey on marriage equality has been met with responses questioning both the legitimacy of the survey and demonstrating support for marriage equality — responses that have been vital for the confidence and morale of members of the LGBTIQ community.

Despite this, the right, particularly the Christian right, has demonstrated its determination to defeat the push for marriage equality through the mobilisation of homophobic and transphobic hatred and disinformation.

This opposition and the desire by significant sections of the Liberal and National parties to avoid legislating for marriage equality suggests that a clear and decisive response to the survey in support of marriage equality may be insufficient in itself to achieve that goal. We will need to build the strongest movement in the streets not just for marriage equality but in support of the broader rights of the LGBTIQ community.

The survey has been widely denounced by supporters of marriage equality. There are currently two High Court challenges to the constitutionality of the survey. These cases are scheduled for September 6, just six days before the surveys are due to be mailed out. Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who is one of the High Court litigants, has described the survey as a “sham” and argued that the government is “exceeding its powers and acting illegally”.

Despite this opposition to the idea of the survey, there is a widespread understanding that if it goes ahead, it is important that people engage in the survey in support of marriage equality.

Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality told ABC News on August 11: “Should we have to deal with a postal vote plebiscite being inflicted upon us, we have a duty of care and responsibility to make sure we campaign for marriage equality, to make sure we campaign Yes for marriage equality.”

This determination to engage with the survey is also reflected in changes in electoral enrolments since the survey was announced. Guardian Australia reported on August 24 that 90,000 young people had enrolled to vote for the first time, along with 675,000 people updating their details. At that time, a further 165,000 forms were still to be processed.

While some of these interactions with the Australian Electoral Commission would include opponents of marriage equality, the latest Newspoll on support for marriage equality indicates that 67% of those polled support marriage equality.

This support has also been reflected in and reinforced by the 20,000 people who rallied for marriage equality in Melbourne on August 26. Protests in support also occurred on August 26 in Perth and August 27 in Wollongong and further mobilisations are planned across Australia over the coming weeks.

The focus of the campaign has been on maximising both participation in the survey and the number of people who respond in support of marriage equality. Achieving a strong response in support of equality will put pressure on the government to introduce a bill to parliament and encourage its members to vote for that bill, but it may not be sufficient to secure marriage equality.

Despite this broad support, and to some extent because of it, the level of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from opponents of marriage equality has increased.

Homophobia rising
The clearest example of this has been the appearance of homophobic posters distributed by neo-Nazi organisations in Melbourne and Sydney which have linked equal marriage with child abuse and paedophilia.

The posters drew widespread condemnation from across the community, including forcing sections of the religious right to seek to distance themselves from the posters. Lyle Sheldon, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), did so by arguing the posters were part of a conspiracy by supporters of marriage equality to call into question the legitimacy of the survey. The ACL is seeking to paint the survey as a threat to marriage generally and an assault on religious freedom, with some of its more feverish supporters online suggesting that marriage equality would lead to the need to establish “underground churches”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has sought to normalise this hatred by saying that it is part of democratic discussion around the survey and that people were likely to say things that are “hurtful, unfair and sometimes cruel” but, rather than stifle free speech, Australians should stand up for any friends and loved ones feeling distressed “at this challenging time”.

Turnbull also said: “You cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case. The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people.” This makes how the community has responded to homophobic attacks the problem, rather than the attacks themselves.

The reliance of the right on hatred and fear to mobilise its base is not just upsetting. It is potentially dangerous both in the lead up to the survey and in the wake of any legislation being passed.

In both the US and France, the final pushes towards marriage equality were responded to by the right escalating violence against the LGBTIQ community. This violence did not drop to the earlier lower, but still unacceptable, levels in the immediate wake of achieving formal marriage equality.

In both countries the right have continued to use marriage equality as a basis to mobilise their base to attempt to not only wind back marriage equality but also other rights that have been won by the LGBTIQ community and to block further gains. The clearest example of this push has been the growth, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in favour of marriage equality, of legislative efforts to block trans people from accessing the toilets of their affirmed gender.

The Christian Right and far-right are not as large or energetic here as those in the US and France. But we can see evidence of the right attempting to energise their base through hypocritical and hyperbolic attempts to convince themselves and their supporters that the survey and Safe Schools programs are existential threats to families and particularly children. These attempts have the potential to create a desperate desire not only to maintain the right’s rage against marriage equality but also to increase the physical threat towards visible members of the LGBTIQ community.

Need for mobilisations
This situation makes ongoing mobilisation during and after the announcement of the survey result central to maximising any result. It will also help maintain morale within the LGBTIQ community. Mobilisations will raise the pressure on the government — particularly those concerned that opposition to marriage equality is a vote loser — to push for marriage equality legislation to be passed.

Equally importantly, ongoing large mobilisations will help to create an atmosphere where homophobia and transphobia are not tolerated in our society. As part of our efforts to build mobilisations in support of marriage equality and against homophobia, it is important we build empathy and support for issues facing the broader LGBTIQ community.

We must support efforts to enable trans people to achieve gender recognition, combat broader discrimination against the community, particularly the religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination acts, and actively combat the Australian government’s ongoing racist policies targeting refugees, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman and a member of the Socialist Alliance. This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1151


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Don’t boycott the postal survey, build a mass Yes campaign

Lisbeth Latham

Despite widespread community opposition and the Senate's repeated rejection of a plebiscite the Malcolm Turnbull government is persisting with a non-binding postal survey on the question of removing the current definition of marriage from the Marriage Act and replacing it with an unspecified definition that will provide for marriage equality in some unspecified form.

At least one court challenge has already been announced and among members of the LGBTQI community a debate has opened as to whether supporters of marriage equality should boycott the survey.

The call for a boycott reflects justified anger and frustration at the government’s continued refusal to follow public opinion and pass legislation to provide for marriage equality, as well as a rejection of the legitimacy of the proposed process.

The most prominent advocate for a boycott was former High Court Justice Michael Kirby who called the postal ballot “irregular, unscientific — I’ll take no part in it” and told Radio National on August 10 “I feel as a citizen I’m being treated as a second-class citizen”. He has since reversed his position and now says he will participate.

Is a boycott the best approach in the present situation?

It is important to note that the question of boycotting a vote, or in this case a survey, is a tactical question, not a strategic question. A decision around the tactic may flow from your strategy, but it should also flow from questions such as the balance of forces, the likely support for a boycott and where your campaign will flow following a boycott or participation in the process.

While it is important to note that the plebiscite and survey are unnecessary and cynical moves aimed at delaying any vote on a marriage equality bill, this is irrelevant to whether the survey should be boycotted.

Also irrelevant is the fact that the survey is illegitimate and the abusive intentions behind the survey. These factors are relevant to whether the survey is necessary prior to any vote on legislation occurring or whether it should go ahead, but they aren't relevant to how we respond to an actual process.

We should also not be under any illusion that if the government were to announce tomorrow that it would introduce legislation to parliament and allow a free vote from its members, that this would somehow avoid a toxic homophobic campaign by the right.

n France, before the 2013 vote on equal marriage, the right mobilised millions of people against marriage equality, and they continued to mobilise large numbers against marriage equality even after it became law. These mobilisations have helped contribute to an increasingly homophobic atmosphere in France over the past four years.

Happily, on this occasion Australia is not France and the right wing in this country is not as vigorous or capable of mobilising. But as anyone involved in reproductive rights campaigning knows, the Australian right can still mobilise in toxic and obnoxious ways.

A decision by supporters of marriage equality to not participate in the survey process will not stop homophobic and transphobic attacks by the right; if anything a boycott campaign would encourage the right’s antics and rhetoric.

The key question as to how to engage with and respond to the survey is what will strengthen the campaign for marriage equality and for the broader rights of the LGBTQI community.

There is no doubt that boycotts can be effective mechanisms through which to undermine attempts by governments to legitimise their actions and to buttress their position. But, equally, boycott campaigns can backfire. This is because:

Successful boycotts are difficult to achieve
Abstentions can be difficult to interpret as to whether they reflect disinterest and apathy, or are a consequence of the boycott
Boycotts can also result in inflating the apparent support of the other side as they are unlikely to boycott.
An additional problem is that the ability of governments to carry out their agenda is not necessarily connected to the popularity of their actions or the electoral votes they receive. Even governments with razor thin majorities and limited electoral support can still carry out attacks.

So, a successful boycott could delegitimise the outcome of the survey, but the government is not binding itself to the outcome so this is unlikely to pressure the government to bring forward legislation for marriage equality.

The government's resistance to legislating for marriage equality and its unwillingness to commit to the process being binding, means that they don't care if the survey falls over. Any opposition to marriage equality will be embraced and support will be dismissed — a boycott will potentially make this easier.

To contemplate a boycott, we would need to have enough support for the boycott across the spectrum of supporters of marriage equality — which seems unlikely — to have little or no participation in the survey from the movement and the broader supporters of marriage equality.

In addition we would need a viable strategy of turning the boycott into a concerted push to force the government's hand to bring a bill to parliament and allow its members to vote freely. This is something we do not currently have, which is why things are at the current impasse.

It is important to support any efforts to legally block the survey. But if it does go ahead building a united public campaign for a Yes vote will create the best opportunity to combat any hate campaign against the LGBTQI community by reactionary forces and limit the space the Turnbull government will have to manoeuvre on marriage equality.

It will be important that the campaign takes clear positions on other LGBTQI rights issues. The right will seek to mobilise fears around these issues. Failing to defend those communities will reinforce fears in the community of support for the broader rights of LGBTQI community being dropped once marriage equality has been achieved.
Happily, on this occasion Australia is not France and the right wing in this country is not as vigorous or capable of mobilising. But as anyone involved in reproductive rights campaigning knows, the Australian right can still mobilise in toxic and obnoxious ways.

A decision by supporters of marriage equality to not participate in the survey process will not stop homophobic and transphobic attacks by the right; if anything a boycott campaign would encourage the right’s antics and rhetoric.

The key question as to how to engage with and respond to the survey is what will strengthen the campaign for marriage equality and for the broader rights of the LGBTQI community.

There is no doubt that boycotts can be effective mechanisms through which to undermine attempts by governments to legitimise their actions and to buttress their position. But, equally, boycott campaigns can backfire. This is because:

Successful boycotts are difficult to achieve
Abstentions can be difficult to interpret as to whether they reflect disinterest and apathy, or are a consequence of the boycott
Boycotts can also result in inflating the apparent support of the other side as they are unlikely to boycott.
An additional problem is that the ability of governments to carry out their agenda is not necessarily connected to the popularity of their actions or the electoral votes they receive. Even governments with razor thin majorities and limited electoral support can still carry out attacks.

So, a successful boycott could delegitimise the outcome of the survey, but the government is not binding itself to the outcome so this is unlikely to pressure the government to bring forward legislation for marriage equality.

The government's resistance to legislating for marriage equality and its unwillingness to commit to the process being binding, means that they don't care if the survey falls over. Any opposition to marriage equality will be embraced and support will be dismissed — a boycott will potentially make this easier.

To contemplate a boycott, we would need to have enough support for the boycott across the spectrum of supporters of marriage equality — which seems unlikely — to have little or no participation in the survey from the movement and the broader supporters of marriage equality.

In addition we would need a viable strategy of turning the boycott into a concerted push to force the government's hand to bring a bill to parliament and allow its members to vote freely. This is something we do not currently have, which is why things are at the current impasse.

It is important to support any efforts to legally block the survey. But if it does go ahead building a united public campaign for a Yes vote will create the best opportunity to combat any hate campaign against the LGBTQI community by reactionary forces and limit the space the Turnbull government will have to manoeuvre on marriage equality.

It will be important that the campaign takes clear positions on other LGBTQI rights issues. The right will seek to mobilise fears around these issues. Failing to defend those communities will reinforce fears in the community of support for the broader rights of LGBTQI community being dropped once marriage equality has been achieved.

The benefits of taking this approach can be seen in the experience in Chile during the 1988 national plebiscite on whether dictator General Augusto Pinochet would receive a further eight-year term as president. The anti-dictatorship forces ran a No campaign despite concerns the vote was unfair, that participation in the plebiscite would give the dictatorship legitimacy and that the Junta would simply ignore a No vote.

This fear was backed up by archives that showed Pinochet had intended to ignore the No vote but the rest of the Junta refused to support this in the face of both the strength of the vote and the danger of increased international isolation. Despite these fears, the opposition saw the plebiscite as an opportunity to publicly campaign, albeit with extreme restrictions, against the dictatorship with the possibility that the vote would result in ending the dictatorship — something they ultimately achieved.

While the stakes in Australia are very different to Chile in 1988, and we would prefer the quicker and easier path of a direct vote now, this is not the reality we face. Instead, the survey, if it goes ahead, is the reality we live with. As such, participation in building the strongest possible Yes vote is a clear path to forcing a vote and giving Turnbull and the reactionaries in the Coalition and the Australian Christian Lobby a bloody nose.

As part of maximising the vote and to build pressure to force the government to recognise any Yes majority, we need to support public mobilisations for marriage equality and aim to make them as large as possible, both in the lead up and after the survey.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1149


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Trump’s transgender military ban: how should the left respond?

Lisbeth Latham

Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the US armed forces via Twitter on July 26. The ban reverses a series of orders made by the Barack Obama administration to explore the integration of transgender service personnel into the military — and for any costs associated with gender affirmation medical technology to be covered.

The ban has re-raised questions about what attitude left-wing forces should take to questions of discrimination in the armed forces of imperialist countries. Should such discrimination be opposed and on what basis should you do so?

Trump’s ban appears to have had two primary motivations — appeasing the president’s transphobic base and addressing concerns from conservative Republicans over the cost of providing gender affirming medical technology to trans military personnel.

Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler has been pushing since June to pass an amendment to the defence budget that would bar the US military from funding gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapy. Despite having wide support in the Republican caucus, this effort has been frustrated by an alliance of Democrats and 24 “moderate” Republicans.

Trump’s ban is also seen as a mechanism via which resistance from conservative Republicans to appropriations for Trump's southern wall can be overcome. However, the total ban goes beyond what many of the conservative Republicans were seeking. It is apparently not supported by any significant layers among senior levels of the US military apparatus.

This lack of broader support is not generally driven by opposition to transphobia. Rather, there are pragmatic concerns that a total ban will raise the risk of attempts at civilian legal intervention.

If successful, this would mean the courts would potentially limit the control that senior military and civilian administration would have over the integration of trans military personnel.

Opposing discrimination So what attitude should the left take to the ban? It is easy to say that the US military is a reactionary institution and the participation of oppressed minorities in it is not a liberating experience — and thus take an indifferent or hostile attitude to the question.

But such approaches are fundamentally wrong. The character of the US military is irrelevant as to whether US military personnel should have protections from discrimination.

This ban will do very little to stop trans people from serving in the military. It is estimated there are already between 2500 and 15,000 trans personnel in all branches of the US armed forces. The ban will simply impact negatively on the lives of these people — and undermine their ability to affirm their gender without serious consequences.

Some of these individuals may be out and out reactionaries — a fact which is irrelevant to the question of whether they deserve to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity. However, a large numbers of trans people, like tens of thousands of members of other marginalised communities who are members of the US military, are in the military as a consequence of the “poverty draft” operating in the US.

Opposition to minorities serving in the US military is not just meaningless (because participation is primarily driven by economic needs), it is paternalistic. It positions the left as supporting reactionary forces that seek to exclude oppressed groups from social life.

If we say it is okay to discriminate against people in certain parts of social life, it strengthens discriminatory attitudes throughout social life.

If our concern is dismantling reactionary institutions such as the US military, then the best approach is to demand maximum democratic rights both within and outside such institutions. Within the context of the military, this should include the right of soldiers to elect officers and to collectively refuse orders.

It is important to note that a significant factor in the breakdown of the US military as a functioning force during the Vietnam War was — on top of the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people and global anti-war movement — the resistance within the US armed forces by soldiers. The great mass of soldiers decided, by and large, that staying alive was more important than the imperialist objectives of the US government and its officer corp.

Opposition to Trump’s ban should not just be limited to opposition to discrimination and violence against trans individuals within the US armed forces. It should include supporting the right to have access, with costs covered, to gender affirming medical technology.

Our arguments should not focus on how much these technologies cost — even though at an estimated US$8 million a year it is a drop in the ocean of the US government’s $611 billion defence budget — but because access to medical treatment is a right that should not be limited by costs or attitudes of those in power.

Broader impacts Accepting the right of the US government to exclude transgender affirmation surgery costs for military personnel would recreate space where other services can be cut off because of discrimination. It also puts at risk funding for trans prisoners to access publicly funded gender affirmation technology.

It strengthens the arguments in favour of the supposed “right” of private businesses and insurance companies to refuse coverage for procedures and medical technology that they are opposed to, such as access to contraceptive pills, gender affirmation surgery and hormones.

A fight against attacks on medical funding for trans military personal can, if argued effectively, lend itself to arguing for publicly funded universal health care — which is desperately needed in the US.

The ending of discrimination within the armed forces is not liberatory, but is an essential part of combating discrimination in broader society.

On the other hand, supporting the continued existence of discriminatory practices in the hope it might discourage people from joining up does nothing to disrupt the military.

However, it does help make the lives of minorities within the military hellish — an impact that will last throughout their lives — and helps enable and justify discriminatory behaviour outside the military.

Opposing pinkwashing At the same time, opponents of imperialism should not fall into the trap of glorifying either trans service personnel or lend ourselves to the pinkwashing of reactionary institutions.

There has been prominent sharing of images of Kristin Beck, a trans woman and former US Navy Seal, on social media. These memes promote the idea that trans service personnel are “defending the rights of US citizens”. The reality is that the deployment of the US military is not aimed at defending the rights of US citizens or progressive values of any form. The US military aims to extend US corporate interests and maintain US imperial hegemony.

There should be no ban on the involvement of trans personnel within the US military and US military personnel should be able to express their gender in whichever way they choose. This should be the case, despite the fact that the ability to do so will not change the US imperialist war machine — or lessen our opposition to its crimes.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman. They are a long-term opponent of US imperialist adventures and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1148


Saturday, July 1, 2017

France: Struggle over workplace rights looms as Macron secures power

Lisbeth Latham

The parliamentary majority President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition won in the second round of legislative elections held on June 18 was reported as a triumph against the weakened forces of both the left and the traditional right.

But questions have emerged over the real strength of the government as it prepares an assault on the rights of workers and their unions.

The parliamentary majority secured by Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) and the allied Democratic Movement (MoDem) was smaller than expected. They won 360 seats in the 577-seat body (313 LREM and 47 MoDem respectively) — down from predictions after the first round of as many as 440 seats.

Despite still winning a clear majority, the stability of the government is questionable. In the week after the second round, the government had four ministers resign over a 48-hour period. The resignations relate to two separate sets of corruption scandals.

All of MoDem’s ministers have resigned, including party leader Francois Bayrou, over allegations that MoDem misused European Union parliamentary funds. Another minister who resigned was Richard Ferrand, also LREM’s secretary-general, who faces allegations of profiting from real estate sales while the head of a health insurance fund.

None of the four ex-ministers have been charged, and two now lead LREM and MoDem in parliament.

The traditional right-wing parties were weakened in the elections, losing 93 seats to hold just 136. The far-right National Front failed to reproduce Marine Le Pen’s success in the presidential elections, winning eight seats (up from the two in 2012).

However, the big losers were left parties.

The combined left vote, including Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed(FI), was the lowest combined vote in the first round for socialists/communists since World War II. The Socialist Part and its allies won just 45 seats, down from 331 in 2012.

FI won 17 seats, allowing it to form its own parliamentary group. The French Communist Party (PCF) received its lowest vote ever, but still increased its seat tally from seven to 11.

There were efforts to form a united parliamentary group between the FI and PCF. However, attempts were blocked by ongoing tensions between the groups.

Although the PCF does not have sufficient seats to form its own parliamentary group on its own, it was able to do so by securing the participation of five left MPs elected from France’s overseas territories.

The PCF and FI pledged to work together to fight against Macron’s neoliberal agenda for France. While the pledge may be undermined by their forces being divided in parliament, a far bigger problem is that the forces do not exist in parliament to build a left opposition capable of blocking Macron’s agenda.

Therefore, if Macron is to be stopped, it will be in the streets.

The first major attack looming against the popular classes is new proposed workplace laws. These follow on from the laws passed last year.

On June 28, the government presented an enabling bill that would introduce temporary ordinances to undermine the Labour Code. Once an enabling law has been passed, such ordinances are short term orders that change the laws for a period of time while the legalisation is still being debated. The enabling bill (but not the ordinances) will be debated on July 24. The text for the ordinances isnot expected to be published until September.

The exact character of the attacks is unclear. The government has only been willing to meet with unions for six hours to verbally outline their plans. However, the changes are expected to further weaken the historic principle in French industrial relations that the three levels of agreements — national, industry, and enterprise — should only improve workers’ rights as the agreements flow down to the local level.

Since 2004, changes to France’s labour laws began to allow enterprise agreements to begin to undermine industry agreements to a limited extent. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) expects the new changes to dramatically expand the areas in which an enterprise agreement can undercut industry level agreements.

Adding to this danger are the changes introduced in last year’s El Khomri labour laws, which make it dramatically easier for enterprise agreements to be imposed. The laws remove the ability of unions representing more than 50% of workers in workplace to veto an agreement negotiated by unions representing more than 30% of workers. Such an agreement can now be approved based on a ballot of workers.

If a new agreement undercuts existing conditions, it won’t automatically apply to existing workers. However, the El Khomri labour laws allow a company to sack any worker who refuses to accept the new lower conditions.

The CGT labelled the laws the death of industry level agreements and of the employment contract.

Resistance to the new laws has been muted. Protests have primarily been led by the Social Front (FS), which was established in April to bring together dozens of unions and social movement groups. FS called mobilisations on May Day, May 8 and June 19, with thousands taking to the streets in cities and towns across France.

A section of the more militant unions have begun to organise. On June 27, the CGT, Workers’ Force (FO), the trade union Solidaires and the United Trade Union Federation (FSU), along with the university student union UNEF, held a series of small demonstrations across France to coincide with MPs taking up their seats.

These unions have also called for joint mobilisations on September 12. The CGT has called for a day of strikes and protests.

This is an important step in building a movement in opposition to Macron’s attacks, but unions face a big hurdle in building a united movement to defend workers’ rights that they were unable to overcome last year. This is the refusal of the more conservative union confederations to mobilise their members to oppose the attacks.

Laurent Berger, the secretary- general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, expressed concerns at the pace at which the government is seeking to push through its changes. However, it has resisted being drawn on the proposals themselves.

This suggests the militant unions and the FS have considerable work ahead if they are to draw the members and supporters of the conservative unions into the streets.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1143.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Record abstention in French elections as Macron secures majority

Lisbeth Latham

  The first round France’s National Assembly elections have been marked by record abstention of 51.29% of the electorate.

The abstentionism primarily impacted on the far-right and left parties. Meanwhile, recently elected President Emmanuel Macron’s The Republic on the March (LREM) and its allies look to secure a strong parliamentary majority in the second round of elections on June 18.

This would strengthen LREM and allies capacity to carry out Macron’s agenda of regressive assaults on students, workers, the unemployed and retirees. LREM’s victory in the first round creates a significant challenge for the French left to build resistance to Macron.

LREM’s allies include the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), along with dissident members of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS). Combined, these forces received 32.32% of the vote. They are expected to ultimately win between 390-440 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.
The second highest result was achieved by the LR and allied right-wing parties, which received 21.57% of the vote. These traditional right-wing parties are expected to win between 70 and 90 seats in the second round.
The far-right Front National placed third with 13.20%, with the FN are expected to increase the number of seats it holds beyond its current two. There is an outside chance it could win enough seats to form a formal parliamentary group (15 seats).
Left results
On the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed (FI) received 11.02% of the vote, and 65 of its candidates have qualified for the second round.
The vote for the traditional social democratic party, the PS, and its allies fell dramatically from 2012, although it was up from its record low in the presidential elections. They won 9.51% of the vote and are expected to win 20-30 seats. This is down dramatically from the 331 seats they hold in the outgoing parliament, with a large number of former government ministers already eliminated in the second round.
The French Communist Party (PCF), for its part, had been heavily dependent on the Left Front electoral alliance with Melenchon’s Left Party to win its seven seats in 2012. With no alliance between the PCF and FI, it suffered a sharp decline in its electoral fortunes — receiving just 2.72% of the vote. Just 12 PCF candidates qualified for the second round.
LREM’s likely strong majority, along with Macron’s victory in the presidential election, is being presented as a rejection as the mainstream parties of the centre-left and the right, as well as an endorsement of Macron’s “modernising” agenda.
Macron is already flagging a new round of attacks on workers and their unions. These include expanding the areas that a company level agreement can undercut a sectoral agreement — along with his campaign pledge to cut France’s public sector by 140,000 jobs.
No mandate
However, while appearing a strong result, the reality is LREM domination of the vote is primarily a consequence of the decline in the mobilisation of voters of the left and far right.
Candidates backed by Macron received 1.3 million fewer votes than Macron did in the first round of the presidential election. Moreover, LREM vote constitutes a small section of the French electorate.
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) pointed out in a statement: “With over 51% abstention, the results of the first round of parliamentary election is that of a sick and increasingly undemocratic Republic. 
“That the Republic on the March should have an absolute majority in the Assembly with the support of 16% of registered voters ... this result shows that this government has no legitimacy to rule by decree, much less to destroy our social gains, the Labour Code, or social Security”.
It is unclear what drove the sharp decline electoral support for the FI and the PCF from the first round of the presidential election. Some of the decline potentially reflects a letdown from Macron’s victory, along with difficulty in transforming Melenchon’s individual electoral appeal to the FI.
Another factor may well have been the failure of the FI and PCF to build a united left electoral campaign for the legislative elections. This division was a consequence of long running tensions between Melenchon and the Left Party on the one hand and the PCF on the other.
These tensions led the majority the PCF’s national conference in November to reject a proposal that the PCF support Melenchon’s presidential campaign. The PCF subsequently endorsed Melenchon only after a narrow membership vote in favour.
Struggle for united left 
There was widespread support for a united legislative campaign, but there was no agreement over the basis for such an alliance.
The PCF sought an alliance based on non-aggression and the ability the parties to present their own programs under their own banner. The FI, on the other hand, made the basis of unity having all candidates accepting its program, under its banner and with all public funding based on votes going to the FI.
The impact of this division was felt in a range of ways. It led to a number of the PCF candidates standing solely as FI candidates. It also led to a level of alienation of the bases of the different groups over the blame game for divisions.
The only PCF candidates who did not compete against an FI candidate in their constituency were those PCF members of parliament who endorsed Melenchon’s campaign. These were among some of the better performing PCF candidates (some receiving more than 30% of the vote in their constituencies).
However, this may also have been a consequence of them standing in seats where the PCF has continued to maintain strong links with the working class.
It is unclear exactly how much of an impact the standing of multiple left candidates in individual constituencies had on the left vote. But it is clear that the divided situation resulted in less left candidates qualifying for the second round of the elections. This weakens the ability of the left to blunt the size of the LREM’s parliamentary majority.
The FI and PCF leaderships have both made clear the pressing need for the left to unite to support the remaining left candidates. There are 80 left candidates who made it through to the second round (including PS candidates who have consistently opposed anti-worker changes to the Labour Code). There are 42 seen as being in a strong position to win a seat.
However, this number could rise if the left is able to mobilise a greater section of its base in the second round. PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent was reported in l'Humanite on June 13 as saying: “The mobilisation of leftist voters is necessary because it is thanks to the huge abstention that the Republic on the Move could get an absolute majority.”
The street
As important as the June 18 second round vote will be in establishing a parliamentary opposition to Macron, the reality will be that the main struggle against attacks on social gains in France will occur in the street.
The Front Social, established in April and including more than 100 unions and other activist groups, has called national mobilisations against Macron for June 19. Unions in Paris have also called protests for June 27, the day that newly elected MPs will take their seats, as part of their campaign against the attacks on France’s labour laws.
These mobilisations will be important steps in the building of a movement against Macron.
[This article originally appeared in Green Left Weekly #1141]


Sunday, June 11, 2017

France: France Insoumise, the PCF and the challenge of building a left fight-back against Macron

Lisbeth Latham
The strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential election (19.58%), the highest vote by candidate to the left of social democracy since 1969, gave rise to hope for the potential for the French left to rebuild its presence in the French parliament and establish itself as a barrier to Macron establishing a parliamentary majority. A factor that could contribute to fully realising this opportunity would be the extent to which a united-left electoral campaign could be built– particularly between the parties which made up the Front de Gauche (Left Front - FG).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses a France Insoumise rally
However, rather than unity the dynamics of division that have been in play for more than two years have largely deepened and could potentially result in the left returning fewer members to parliament than in 2012.

Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was primarily driven by France Insoumise (Indomitable France – FI), the mass organisation which Mélenchon launched on February 10, 2016 with the support of Parti de Gauche (Left Party – PG), the party he launched following his resignation from the PS in 2009. When FI was launched, Mélenchon also announced the dissolution of the Front de Gauche – the electoral front which had been launched between the PG, the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party – PCF) and a number of smaller left parties. FI has primarily organised via the web, with supporters being organised into committees of between 5-12 people, By May 1, FI had more than 450, 000 supporters, in March, when the organisation had over 260, 000 supporters, there were 2, 800 committees across.

Pierre Laurent
In addition to the support from FI, Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by the PCF and Ensemble (a regroupment of smaller left groups within the FG). However, while the launch of FI and Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by some of PCF’s leadership, particularly Pierre Laurent, PCF National Secretary, and Marie-George Buffet, current MP and former PCF National Secretary, many PCF members were hostile to both the creation of FI and to Melenchon’s presidential campaign. Fifty-five percent of the PCF’s National Conference on November 5, rejected a proposal to support Melenchon’s presidential bid. Three weeks later, 54% of the party’s 50, 000 paid membership voted to support Mélenchon’s candidacy. This support was vital, as in order to be formally nominated for president, he required the endorsement from 500 elected officials – which the PCF’s formal support gave him. There was also significant resistance within Ensemble where 30% of members voting against supporting Mélenchon’s candidature.

Mélenchon’s success in the presidential elections while being a culmination of a growth of in hope around his campaign – also raised the hope that if the vote could be translated through to the legislative elections there would be a possibility that the left of the PS could not only significantly boost its presence in parliament, but have a big enough contingent to be able to block Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche! (the Republic on the Move – LREM) holding a majority in the parliament. This need was reinforced after Macron announced his government with former right-wing Les Repulicains MP Édouard Philippe as his prime minister. Macron announced plans for a new round of attacks on workers to follow on from last year’s El Khomri labour laws which significantly undermined worker and union rights.

Despite this hope and need for a united left electoral response, it has not materialised. While in the wake of the Macron’s victory in the second round both the PCF and Ensemble! issued statements calling for a united left electoral ticket. FI insisted the basis for unity was for candidates run under FI’s banner, be based on acceptance of FI’s program, and that all public funding generated based on votes for FI candidates would go to FI. Positions which the PCF was unwilling to accept, based on their desire run under a common banner but also allow individual parties to be profiled and the PCF’s unwillingness to campaign for the withdrawal from nuclear power generation. On May 9, Manuel Bompard an FI spokesperson announced that negotiations had broken down, he blamed the PCF’s Laurent for this. As a consequence, the FI would be running its own candidates in every constituency including constituencies where the PCF, Ensemble!, or Europe Ecology les Vertes (Europe Ecology - The Greens) have sitting MPs (unless the sitting MP had endorsed Mélenchon’s presidential campaign).

The failure to form a united ticket reflects long-running tensions within the FG which culminated in the 2015 regional elections where the FG was heavily divided and received tiny votes. From the outset there were tensions within the Front about both the character of the front, was it an alliance between organisations or should individual activists be able to join and have a say, and around democracy, with the PCF, particularly in areas where it was the largest organisation, imposing its candidates, there had also been tensions as to who could say they were front candidate – which was a problem in municipal and regional elections where tickets are run and at times member organisations were represented on different tickets – with the sharpest question being could a ticket involving official PS candidates be labelled a FG ticket? With the PCF (which was more likely to be in such an alliance pushing for the ability for it to wave the FG flag in these circumstances).

These tensions culminated in a meeting of the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (EUG/NGL) in 2014 where PG sort to block Pierre Laurent’s election to the presidency of the EUL/NGL over the question of the PCF’s running joint tickets with the PS, although Laurent was subsequently elected. In the 2015 regional elections (which were marked by a sharp increase in support for the Front National) the FG ran only a seven of tickets involving all of the FG– with the rest being a variety of separate tickets with the PCF and thePG running on different tickets. The joint tickets performed badly, with the only ticket in Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées receiving sufficient votes to contest the second round – all the remaining tickets averaging 2.49%. In the wake of this failure, the Front essentially stopped operating as a joint organisation and Mélenchon announcing the PG would be leaving the Front.

The rupture between the PCF and FI has created considerable concern that it will dramatically undermine the ability to of the left to maximise its parliamentary representation and build an effective block to work with social movements to oppose Macron’s regressive agenda for France. On May 10, Ensemble! issued a statement saying that it was not the time to settle scores or for mutual accusations, but instead to build a framework for bringing together the forces which had supported Mélenchon’s candidacy, based on a proposal of a common charter for candidates for the legislative elections that Ensemble! had made to the PCF and FI – Ensemble! had also called for regional and departmental meetings of the organisations to try and overcome the “national bottleneck”. While these proposals if adopted might create clarity for the basis of joint candidates, it doesn’t overcome the sticking point of who would be the candidate in each constituency – particularly when the PCF is faced with a fight for its electoral survival, and there is a view that Mélenchon’s approach to the PCF is partly motivated by desire to further marginalise the PCF.

It is unclear what the impact of the electoral division will have on the elections. The shared polling for the FI/PCF has been in decline since early May from a high of 18% to a low of 14.5% with projected returned candidates down from a projected high of 25-30 to a low of 12-22 (the FG components currently hold 10 seats). The splitting of the vote is likely to result in less candidates making it through to the second round (unlike the presidential elections where only the top two candidates go through to the second round, in the legislative elections if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote then all candidates receiving more than 12% of the vote qualify for the second round) other than lowering confidence of the left electorate, having two or more left candidates (both the Nouveau Parti Anticapitlisate and Lutte Ouvrier will also be standing candidates) in a constituency may not undermine the capacity for the left to win seats. The bigger threats are the potential rebound in the PS vote from the historic low of 6.38% which Hamon received in April – while the left division could contribute to this – the PS performs is likely to be better at the local level particularly from the PS’s left who opposed the regressive record of the Hollande and the governments of Aryault and Valls. An additional factor is that Hamon’s vote also collapsed as Mélenchon’s campaign built momentum and it looked more likely he could overtake Francois Fillon and possibly Le Pen – this dynamic is much less likely to occur in the legislative elections, at least at the national level. By far the biggest threat to the return of left candidates, however, will be the threat of abstentionism as people see a victory for Macron’s LREM and the forces to its right as inevitable.

The reality is that no matter the result for the parties of the left – they will not be able to block Macron’s agenda by their actions in parliament alone – even if LREM does not achieve an electoral majority outright, it will be in a position to try and stick together sufficient support from the PS and Les Repulicains to pass legislation. The only force which will be able to stop that process will be the resistance in the streets. To this end, there has been a positive boost to the resistance with the formation of the Social Front. Initiated by union activists who had been involved in the campaign against the El Khomri laws and who had been frustrated by the decision by union leaderships to end mobilisations against those laws on September 15, 2016. The FS called for mobilisations against both Le Pen and Macron on April 22, May 1, and May 8 – it has now expanded its support to from 70 militant organisations. The FS has also called for a national meeting on June 10, along with local organising meetings after that date, and a mass mobilisation for June 19. The significance of the emergence of the FS is that in the last decade resistance to government attacks, particularly on workers, has primarily occurred via the intersydicale which brings together the leaderships of France’s union confederations – however if some of these confederations refuse to participate such as the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) in the campaign against the El Khomri laws in 2016, then there is a very limited framework for engaging rank-and-file members of these confederations who want to fight government attacks. The formation of the FS may provide a framework to reach out to broader layers of workers and build resistance despite the direction of the more conservative confederation leaderships.

While there are serious challenges for progressive forces in France – made more difficult by the organisational divisions within the left, both the legislative elections and the formation of the FS pose a positive opportunity to build resistance to the attacks which Macron is preparing on French society. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 


About This Blog

Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP  

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.