How to tackle the riots in France?

After the most recent outbreak of violence at a rally against the labour reform on Tuesday in Paris, President François Hollande has threatened to ban all demonstrations. Such a step would undermine democracy, some commentators warn. Others call for a tougher stance vis-à-vis the trade unions, and are particularly critical of the CGT.

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Libération (FR) /

Ban on demonstrations would be counterproductive

Hollande has gone too far with his threat, Libération admonishes:

“It is only reasonable for the executive to show resolve. The CGT and all responsible unions condemn the excesses of these marginal groups. And the government is responsible for maintaining democratic order. ... Not unconditionally, however: as important as it is to punish the rioters, it does not justify banning demonstrations. That would make the social movements - regardless of what one thinks about their goals - responsible for deeds that have nothing to do with them. Anti-democratic violence must not lead to a weakening of democracy, whose principles and procedures must be maintained even in difficult circumstances. Otherwise we would be playing into the hands of the activists whose excesses we condemn.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Hollande once again too meek

France's president must finally take firm action against the demonstrators, Le Figaro counters:

“François Hollande is threatening to ban any new protests against the El Khomri law if need be - instead of simply declaring that the state of emergency requires a ban on demonstrations and making clear once and for all that the police, already in mourning over the Islamist barbarity, have better things to do than disperse vandals in balaclavas whose savagery has caused outrage. But always open as he is to improbable compromises, the president doesn't dare. Just as he doesn't dare to come down hard on the CGT and make it financially liable for the damage its demonstrations are causing. Again and again he has been dominated by his fatal desire to exercise caution even though the reality of the situation calls for tough action.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

A whole country hostage to a minority

A single trade union confederation, the CGT, is responsible for all the chaos, Jean-Marie Colombani fumes in Corriere della Sera:

“Amidst all the tumult people forget that the unions that are opposed to the law are actually in the minority. The others, first and foremost the trade union confederation CFDT, are quite rightly in favour of the reform. ... They participated in working out the current draft and demanded numerous and vital changes to the text. And that is the crux of the matter: the CGT, which is above all strong in the public sector, threatens to fall behind and be overtaken by the CFDT. And the latter could soon become France's most powerful trade union confederation. So what this is all really about is a pathetic attempt by the CGT to gain new legitimation through protest.”

Deutschlandfunk (DE) /

Cohesion among the French disappearing

Deutschlandfunk sees the protests as a symptom of the growing rifts in French society:

“The so-called 'excesses' of youths and young adults have reached a criminal intensity that can only be explained by hate, mostly of the police but also of 'them up there': the entire political class. It has lost credibility all over the country, and for the left the huge disappointment with François Hollande's presidency is an additional factor. The gap between poor and rich is growing and the integration efforts aren't making progress. On the contrary, in these times of daily and seemingly omnipresent coverage of terrorism, the whole section of society with an Arab background is increasingly under general suspicion. Cohesion among the French is disappearing - and perhaps this is the country's biggest problem given that it creates a general sense of insecurity and also leads to isolation and segregation.”

Adevărul (RO) /

The French expect too much

The French protesters are simply refusing to accept reality, writes journalist Dinu Flamand on the blog platform Adevârul:

“Other liberal states like the UK or Germany, not to mention the US, are far less complicated when it comes to workers' rights. They hire and fire employees without much ado. In France the people were never willing to accept that. But in a globalised economy in which the big companies head for countries that don't have trade unions (like China) the 'traditional' claims of the French trade unions seem like ghosts from a bygone era. … Neither the unions nor the French public want to come to terms with the fact that whether they like it or not, globalisation has a social impact.”

Die Tageszeitung taz (DE) /

Germany is to blame

The protests in France are aimed at Hollande and his government but they are the wrong targets, the daily paper taz observes:

“Unemployment is rising in France because the Germans have exported their unemployment. The symbolic phrase is 'Agenda 2010': Germany's real earnings have been systematically capped to covertly gain competitive advantages. The French, by contrast, have behaved fairly so far. They allowed their salaries to rise apace with technological development and didn't try to compete with dumping wages. The price for this is bitterly high: thanks to its trickery Germany now has a competitive advantage of roughly 20 percent. Here we almost have full employment while in France around 10 percent of the population is jobless. The French politicians are powerless against the German aggression. … The solution lies not in France but in Germany: salaries must increase until they reach a level at which the unfair competitive advantage is eliminated.”

Le Point (FR) /

CGT only wants to preserve its own influence

While other unions have agreed to compromise in the conflict over the labour market reform, France's General Confederation of Labour (CGT) continues to fight the law tooth and nail. Le Point takes a look at its motivation:

“If the CGT is doing its best to smother the tentative recovery it's not to defend jobs or buying power but only to hold onto its own petty interests. By giving company-level negotiations priority over sectoral collective bargaining agreements, the notorious article 2 of the labour law further reduces the confederation's already waning influence in the labour world. Put simply, the CGT is like a fish in water in the Kafkaesque system of professional sectors where everyone else is at their wit's end.”

Diário de Notícias (PT) /

Social Europe on its death bed

Workers' rights are being massively curtailed not just in France but in other European countries too, Viriato Soromenho Marques writes in Diário de Notícias:

“What is now lying in its death throes in France is the project of a Europe that had vowed to protect labour against abuse from global capitalism. Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, warned as early as 1989 against taking a purely economic view of the European project: 'No one falls in love with a single market!' ... Today's Europe, that of Manuel Valls, however, is heaping scorn on the labour laws enshrined in the EU treaty and trivialising the fact that an entire nation - Greece - is being used for a social experiment in extreme austerity.”

Népszava (HU) /

Front National benefiting from strikes

The far-right Front National stands to profit most from the deadlock between the French government and unions over the labour market reform, the left-wing daily Népszava believes:

“Similar reforms to those that Hollande now wants to force on the French have already been introduced in many other industrialized states. In every case we have seen the spread of a form of existence known as precarity. So it should come as no surprise that the unions are putting up huge resistance. ... While life in France has come to a standstill because of the contest of wills between the Socialist government and the leftist unions, the far-right Front National under Marine Le Pen can rub its hands in glee. That's the saddest thing about all this. Le Pen is well aware that the far right only stands a chance if the natural alliance between the parties on the left and the working people collapses.”

Alternatives économiques (FR) /

Blockade mentality only harms the unions

The union protests are aimed in particular at Article 2 of the labour market reform, according to which working times would be negotiated at the individual business level independently of collective bargaining agreements. Economist Jean-Pierre Bompard shakes his head on his blog with Alternatives économiques:

“Article 2 turns the hierarchy of working times on its head, and is indispensable for enabling our business activities to adapt to globalisation. All the more so in that - aside from overtime pay - this inversion does not affect wages. This article is also the last chance for unions to regain their legitimacy. ... The conflict over this law clearly illustrates two concepts of trade unionism: refusal or compromise. It remains to be seen if there is not room to combine refusal with something else and create new rights. A form of unionism that boils down to refusal will only bring about a rejection of unionism.”

L'Humanité (FR) /

Paris should avoid escalation

More than 160 French academics and intellectuals have called on the Paris government to stop exacerbating the tensions in an appeal put out by the think tank Fondation Copernic. L'Humanité publishes the appeal:

“The government has no majority on the left to push through this enormous social regression that is turning back the wheels of time. It is confronted with the unions and demonstrations that have given hope to millions of employees, youths and people living in precarious situations and without any rights. ... Nuit debout shows the potential of this movement. Increasing the tensions and the police brutality, harassing the strikers, pushing through a putsch in parliament: where will this all lead? Like many others, we are worried. Does this government need a death - like during the conflict over the university reform in 1986 - to make it change its course? It would be better if it stopped risking tragic developments as soon as possible.”

Naftemporiki (GR) /

The eternal nostalgia of the French

The French are somewhat romantic in the way they are holding on to old ideals, the conservative daily Naftemporiki comments:

“The trade unions and the workers aren't flinching. On the contrary, they are escalating their protests and crippling public transport, airports and sea ports. This is a huge blow for tourism in Paris, which is still trying to recover from the attacks in November. … Right now the French are rebelling against any measure that affects their labour rights and won't listen to the arguments of the economists. … So they go on fighting, unlike the Greeks who have stopped believing that 'spring' will ever come. The French don't believe in the law of the market. They are still clinging to the slogans of the French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”

Sabah (TR) /

Strikes bear witness to downfall of Europe

The protests and strikes in France bear witness to the collapse of the European dream, the pro-government paper Sabah believes:

“We're approaching a paradigm shift! The Old Continent is on its last legs. Its style of production, its relations and its models are no longer compatible with the new era. The values it insists on adhering to simply don't function in today's political and economic reality. The continent is losing its flexibility and the ability to assess itself. ... It seems that we are witnessing in an unexpected way the first serious destruction wreaked by globalisation in Europe. Of course this change won't take place overnight, and it won't happen in France but in another European country. But the current events herald the beginning of the end.”

Diário de Notícias (PT) /

Terrible timing for reform

It is a mistake for the French government to try to box through the labour reform before the European football championship, writes Diário de Notícias:

“Just as more than two million tourists are about to descend on France for the Euro 2016 the strikes at refineries and the trade unions' demonstrations have turned the country upside down and jeopardised the parliamentary majority. It may be true that the calendar leading up to the presidential election is full and postponing the labour market reform until after the summer would mean falling short of the desired impact on the economy by spring 2017 - and would be a windfall for Marine Le Pen. But in politics it's not just about the right timing but also about the way in which things are done.”

L'Express (FR) /

Implement just one point of the law

Article 2 of the reform, according to which social partners can negotiate working times and other measures independently of the collective bargaining agreements that apply for individual sectors, is particularly contested. That passage should be kept and the rest withdrawn, economist Jacques Attali writes in his blog for L'Express:

“The debate will concentrate on the changes to be made to article 2, to strip it of its clout. I propose the opposite strategy. Leave this article as it is, because it offers a truly democratic approach in businesses by pushing employees to become unionised so as to make progress on social issues. Then the rest of the reform should be tossed out and replaced by a law on professional training for the unemployed, which our country urgently needs and which doesn't concern the unions at all.”

El País (ES) /

Europe's future at stake in France

The violent protests in France are weakening one of the mainstays of European integration, warns El País:

“What is happening in France is not merely an internal issue. With just a few days to go before the referendum on Britain remaining in in the EU a fundamental piece of the European project is tearing itself apart over which social and labour model it will have in the coming years. Meanwhile the far right is looking on with delight as the left and the centre-left hack away at each other with the 2017 presidential elections just around the corner. Asking for dialogue and moderation, as rhetorical as it sounds, it the only way out of a complicated crisis that threatens the French institutions themselves.”

De Standaard (BE) /

Parliament must win out against street protests

The current strikes in France and Belgium point to a dangerous understanding of democracy, comments columnist Mia Doornaert in De Standaard:

“For the northern, predominantly Protestant countries of Europe, parliaments and laws are the fruits of freedom. After all, the fight for freedom was undertaken with the goal of turning subjects into citizens, giving them a voice and a say in how the country is managed. … In southern Europe, by contrast, democratically elected governments and parliaments are often depicted as obstacles to freedom. There, opposing these institutions with their 'asphalt democracy' is seen as a powerful and revolutionary stance. … It would be very short-sighted to back both these approaches equally. … Particularly now that the warnings about the advance of populism come so frequently the parliamentary rules must not be weakened but rather strengthened.”

The Times (GB) /

This reform must only be the start

France urgently needs the planned reforms, as well as other economic and labour reforms, warns The Times:

“The president, and the government of Manuel Valls, should stand firm in overhauling the regulations that hold back business. ... It needs not only to push through its present reforms but also to go further: a phasing out of centralised labour agreements, a tightening of the rules on unemployment benefits. Trimming France’s huge civil service and raising the retirement age would help rein in the public deficit. The president is plainly unwilling to grasp this nettle for fear that it will handicap his re-election campaign next year. ... The president has taken a hapless and hazardous course.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Everyone loses out in this power struggle

The growing mass protests in France against labour reforms that include the extension of the 35-hour week are bad news for everyone, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung observes:

“So far the French have failed to prove that their 35-hour working week is the right model. They're not doing particularly well in the competition with other comparable economies in Europe. Unemployment has by no means improved and considerable segments of the economy are trapped in poverty. The whole attitude that you should earn as much as others even though you work less seems somewhat frivolous. If the contentious labour reform does come into effect it will hardly have the desired result of boosting the economy; it's too cautious for that. The costs of the blockades, however, will definitely have a negative impact on the economy. Everyone will lose out. The power struggle in France is pointless.”

Die Tageszeitung taz (DE) /

Being stubborn won't help protesters' cause

Germany's left is watching the protesters in France with envy - and not without reason, the left-wing daily taz comments:

“Those French are plucky, they think. If we Germans were even half as radical as the French, we - and Europe - would fare better. There is some truth in this notion, but it is only half the truth. … In Germany too, there were protests against the Hartz IV reform [of German unemployment benefits], but they were nowhere near as radical as those in France. The unions baulked at that. … But at least later on they managed to reform the reform a little - and push through the minimum wage. The minimum wage has for a long time been as much a part of France as radical social protest. Nonetheless, the average worker on the Seine is doing no better than his counterpart on the Rhine - quite the contrary in fact. So clinging stubbornly to the status quo cannot be the cleverest solution. ”

ABC (ES) /

Hollande's firm stance should be copied

Impressed by the firm stance of the French Socialists, the conservative daily ABC hopes by contrast that their Spanish colleagues in the PSOE party will show similar resolve on reforms:

“PSOE should follow Hollande's example and turn its back on the radical left to embrace the interests of the state with proposals that benefit the country as a whole. In recent days France has been rocked by violent protests arising from the unions' all-out rejection of the Hollande government's labour reforms. However, rather than giving in to the protesters' blackmail tactics the French Socialists are sticking to their plans to make the ailing job market more flexible - a valuable lesson which their Spanish colleagues should take to heart.”

Libération (FR) /

Blocking the reform is nonsense

French workers will protest against the labour market reform again today with massive walkouts. The unions are going too far with their threat to paralyse the country, Libération argues:

“What is this conflict really about? Not about a global attack on French labour law as some demonstrators are claiming. ... No, it's merely about bringing negotiations on working times back to the level of businesses (excluding salaries, working conditions, rules for layoffs, etc.). ... Is all this really worth a country-wide blockade of the sort the confederation of trade unions CGT is aiming for? Hardly. Particularly as withdrawing the project would have a major drawback: namely doing away with the incontestable advantages it contains.”

L'Opinion (FR) /

A lose-lose situation for Hollande

The planned labour market reform has left the president in quite a fix, L'Opinion comments:

“One year before the end of his mandate, François Hollande faces his toughest social and political test. He must solve an impossible equation: if he cedes to pressure from the street by revising his labour reform, he risks being a lame duck president for the rest of his term in office. If he remains firm, confronts the crisis and imposes state authority and the legitimacy of the law, he could end up nipping in the bud any hope for economic reform. And however he decides, he must be aware that whether it is passed, truncated or rejected, the El Khomri law will no longer serve any purpose. It's a lose-lose situation.”

Le Temps (CH) /

Only social liberals can reform the country

Social liberals are the only hope for change in France in view of the discord between conservatives and the left, the French interest group Les Gracques writes in Le Temps:

“The social liberals believe in France's ability to return to growth, reduce unemployment and unequal opportunities, and improve the situation of the poorest without discouraging entrepreneurship. ... In other words, they are probably the only political force with the necessary determination to reform France, but also with the necessary moderation and legitimacy. ... Social liberalism stands for an inspiring and credible social project. That makes it a true response to the crisis of meaning that is pushing so many of our citizens into the arms of political and religious extremists.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Not really capable of pushing through reforms

Far more than just a new law is at stake in France, De Volkskrant warns:

“There are two possibilities. Either the government sticks to the law despite the widespread protests or it gives in to the pressure from the street. Ten years ago a right-wing government did the latter when another labour law aimed at fighting youth unemployment met with major opposition. Another defeat for a left-wing government now would prove that France's political class is incapable of pushing through such reforms, and even more people would turn their backs on it - which would play right into the hands of the far right a year before the general election. We can only hope that the government stays firm, even if the issue here is a rather ineffective law.”

Les Echos (FR) /

Nothing but boredom and rioting

In an interview with the radio station Europe 1, François Hollande has let it be known that he will not yield on the question of labour market reform. And why should he? Les Echos asks:

“Who should he give in to? A couple of hundred people who are relieving their boredom on Paris's Place de la République? A couple of thousand professional demonstrators who have failed to create a sweeping mobilisation against a text that is anything but revolutionary? ... The reform put forward by [Labour Minister] El Khomri is more like a series of small steps than a social breakthrough. The demonstrations are falling prey to anarchists and rioters and often end up having little to do with protests against the labour market reform.”

Ouest France (FR) /

France's politicians not ready for snap election

Ouest-France doubts that the government will be brought down by the opposition and critics within its own ranks:

“How many left-wing politicians are willing to commit collective suicide in this way? How many are willing to leave the Socialist Party and join [the leader of the Left Party] Jean-Luc Mélenchon? How many will accept the responsibility for a dissolution of the parliament? If they chose this path they would effectively be leaving the field to the right and the Front National and accepting Nicolas Sarkozy as prime minister. How many among the ranks of the right are willing to support a motion of no confidence in view of the inadequate preparation of the Republicans? … In practice, the formation of a new government will probably fail owing to the politicians' lack of courage and the lack of the coherence such a step requires.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

Government must not bypass the people

Forcing through the labour market reform with a constitutional trick is not the right way to go about things, writes the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

“The fact that the French government has overridden parliamentarians more than 80 times since 1958 doesn't make it any more acceptable. Resorting to such a stranglehold is an admission of weakness. The government has failed in its attempt to convince not only the French deputies but also the French public of the need for reform. ... That said, labour market reform is more pressing than ever in France. Young people in particular are excluded from the job market because stringent job protection and high redundancy pay are hindering the creation of new jobs. At the same time strictly regimented working times and wage increases in excess of productivity are constricting companies. Nevertheless: a government must respect the will of the people. It must win the public over with a coherent programme. That is what Hollande has failed to do.”

Les Echos (FR) /

Adequate protection against dominance of minority

Les Echos sees the policy as an unavoidable special approach to the problem:

“Article 49-3 of the constitution is an effective democratic instrument. It allows a government to prevent blockades by minorities. There have always been rebels on the left and right who try to secure more for themselves than their political clout merits. They try to depict this article of the constitution as an aberration of democracy. But the opposite is true: this article protects democracy against a minority that wants to decide for all. And if the procedure seems brutal, it is because our political history was marked by the paralysis of the Fourth Republic [1946-1958]. ”

More opinions

Die Presse (AT) / 31 May 2016
  No other country in Europe is as resistant to reform (in German)