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As Unemployment Rises, France Wrangles With Workers

BY Nathalie Duplan

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 1:00 PM

 

PARIS, FRANCE—The marchers took to the streets, invaded and occupied offices in Marseilles, Martigues, Aix—en Povence, Aubagne, and Arjes in the south of France; in Rennes, Lorient, Chatejjererault, and Poiters in the western region; in Arras in the north, and Bordeaux in the southwest. In Paris, workers occupied a high school. For employees who have found it nearly impossible to secure “a fair day's wage for a fair day's work,” it was a necessary and justified action.

Although the demonstrations earlier this year were carried out by a small number of protesters, their determination and actions were significant. Their protest is proof that social and economic situations in France are causing serious problems. Last year, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made job creation and employment a pillar of his election campaign.

A deeper understanding of the situation in France requires understanding who the strikers are, why they saw the need to take such action, and the role unions played in that action.

The protesters are not just the employed, but the long-term unemployed—more than one-third of the jobless have been without work for at least a year. They were demanding bonuses, a minimum wage, formal legal status in the negotiations with the government, and a guaranteed package of social benefits.

Jospin's Socialist government earmarked 1 billion francs ($165 million) for the jobless—a measure that neither answered the current unemployment situation nor satisfied the unemployed—and the prime minister at a loss for a satisfactory solution. Nobody expected the recent marches and building occupations, because the unemployed had kept silent for nearly 30 years—even though the unemployment rate has risen steadily to 12.4% today. Some 25 years before, however, then-President George Pompidou predicted that when unemployment reached 1 million in France, there would be a revolution.

Demonstrations in France are generally unpopular. However, on this occasion the French public recognized and encouraged the demonstrators—60% of the public gave their approval. The explanation is simple: growing unemployment rates are a concern for everyone.

The crisis is even more serious since the French appear to have lost faith in new job opportunities. Governmental aids such as ASSEDIC (Welfare Center For the Unemployed) are of little consolation—75% of the unemployed who receive ASSEDIC assistance get between $328 and $821 monthly.

What warranted attention though is not government aid, but that almost 3 million members of the labor force—15% of the wage earners—earn less than $821 monthly. These individuals receive no help from the government. Financially speaking, holding a job is not the solution to overcoming poverty.

Many of those without work fall into the long-term unemployed category, with the majority ranging in age between 40 and 50 years old. The prospects for these people ever finding employment are very slim.

Finally, and most importantly, the costs of creating new jobs, even for low wage earners, are high due to the taxes companies are forced to pay, effectively becoming a disincentive for job creation.

In an effort to decrease unemployment, the government reduced the number of weekly working hours in an attempt to divide the labor force into smaller units. The measure was initially popular among workers and those seeking employment, but many economists have expressed reservations about the strategy, which Jospin hopes the government will accept.

Role of the Unions

The dissatisfaction with government programs is only part of the reason for the marches and demonstrations. The intervention of labor unions—among them, Act Together Against Unemployment (ACI), Association For Employment, Information, and Solidarity (APEIS), The National Movement of the Precarious Jobless (MNCP), and General Congregation for the Workers (CGT)—has not improved the situation.

With the help of the mass media the unions orchestrated widespread protests, though many reports characterized the demonstrations as spontaneous reactions of dissatisfied workers. But among them, only the MNCP seems to be devoid of any political influence. It was founded in 1982 when it broke away from the union for the unemployed. Both the CGT and the APEIS have links to the Communist Party. The ACI's political alliances are more nebulous. What is known is that the movement, founded in 1994, has leftwing activists such as Alain Kricine, of the LCR (Revolutionary Communist Party) in its ranks.

According to the unions, it is difficult to organize the jobless. If membership numbers are an accurate indication, the MNCP has 15,000-20,000 members; the APEIS, 25,000 members; and the CGT, 15,000 members. ACI numbers are unknown. The ACI reports that, among its numbers, 40% are unemployed, whereas 80% of MNCP members are unemployed, indicating that the ACI has little interest in dealing with the daily problems of the unemployed.

Nicole Notat, general secretary of the Federal Confederation of Workers (CFDT), has been managing the National Union For Employment in Industry (UNEDIC). The UNEDIC has a compensation system based on insurance to which each wage earner subscribes if employed for more than a year. Notat used the term “manipulation of the distresses” to indicate that the unemployed are “used” in order to destabilize his organization. What is certain is that Notat's opponents—a few CFDT militants, and members of the ACI-benefited from the workers'plight.

Other unions also used the situation to enhance their image and to convince the socialist government and the public that they are still powerful. On Jan. 2, in its confederal head office, the CGT organized a meeting for several of the associations in order to coordinate different protests.

The president of the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), Alain Deleu, expressed his concerns with the methods used by some of the movements (see sidebar). He said that although they had differing opinions and approaches to combating unemployment in the country, they should be united in their approach to creating work and finding solutions to existing problems between employers and their employees. He said the estimated number of people at or below the poverty line had risen to approximately 7 million, and that it was up to the unions to unite in their fight for the worker and for job creation.

“The way [toward progress] is to be united in the fight against unemployment—and our actions and proposals should reflect this,” he said. “Unemployment is a violation to people. It is a scourge that destroys social [bonds] and [is] also the root of violence.”

He added that by depriving man of work, “you hit at the very heart of his humanity.”

The prime minister has not only had to deal with the problem of unemployment but also with the different leanings of his government. Jospin had hoped to avoid any instability, first of all by announcing more compensation for the jobless and then by showing his authority to some of his ministers, most particularly Dominque Voynet—the ecologist minister of environment—and Marie-George Buffet—the communist Minister of Youth and Sports—who both had supported the unemployment movement.

It's a hard economic and social situation for unemployed people and wage earners, and with the many political interests and concerns involved, it seems France faces an uncertain future.

Nathalie Duplan writes from Paris.

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