A glimpse of struggle as France eases restrictions

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There have been a series of hundreds-strong demonstrations outside hospitals

France is emerging blinking into the post-lockdown light. It is not a liberation like the last scenes of beethoven’s opera Fidelio, where the freed prisoners sing of their joy.

Although many of us are happy to escape from confinement, we are also aware that we are being chased out far in advance of what is medically sound in order to start the euro-making machinery for the corporations.

In the poorer parts of Paris, people had to keep working for the most part anyway. If you live from week-to-week you can’t afford to be too unwilling to turn up when your employer calls.

And to add to the stress, the sadistic attention of the police continues unabated, lockdown or not. During the two months of lockdown there were 12 reported deaths of people following contact with police.

But the beginning of the end of lockdown places squarely in front of socialists and campaigners the issue of how to turn into reality all those brave words on Zoom calls about no return to how it was before.

Remember how everyone said there would be a new beginning, an explosion of protest and so on. Now it has to be made true. That’s not easy, partly because for most it still feels very uncomfortable to think of
calling a crowd into the street.

There is a disconnect between saying that the government should not send us on to packed Metro trains and the same time saying let’s all gather.

Nevertheless we have to find a way to start protesting — socially-distanced perhaps — to show the social distance between us and French president Macron Emmanuel Macron.

Don’t forget that before Covid-19 there was the great revolt of the Yellow Vests and the mass strikes and protests over attacks on pensions. Can these come back but with a special edge, honed by the experience of the failings of the system that led to the pandemic?

It has begun with the hospital workers and the care workers. Like everywhere, the French high-ups have fallen over themselves to praise the health staff who they have savaged with cuts for years. “They must have medals! There will be a national parade of thanks! There must be a bonus of 1,500 euros for them ...” except it turns out less than half will get this amount.

Those who have been on the frontline are unimpressed by such empty words.

There have been a series of hundreds-strong demonstrations outside hospitals and by care staff. A national demonstration is planned for 16 June. This could link up with other battles by retail workers and others.

So Macron has taken the same route he did with the Yellow Vests and started a series of meetings bringing together all the health bodies, unions, politicians and so on.

However, whatever this august group decides, the previously issued “My health 2022” plan continues, and includes an extension of privatisation but precious little on the restoration of jobs and salaries.

Health workers point to the need to recruit an extra 120,000 people to give the health service a boost. And at present French nurses receive 300 euros a month less than the European average. This means many give up the job after a few years or illegally combine their job with a second one.

Another very serious site of struggle is the issue of job losses and factory closures.

Across France companies are preparing to shed thousands of jobs in an effort to restore their finances and to enable them to keep paying out dividends. This will be a very serious threat to workers’ livelihoods, and we can expect the government to back management all the way.

Bertrand Martinot, economist and author of the ‘My Health’ report, suggested the removal of Ascension Thursday as a public holiday in May. He also recommended halving the autumn school holidays to one week in order to stop too many people taking a break at the same time and, in the public sector, a temporary reduction in leave taken to compensate for overtime.

Most bosses and politicians know they cannot so brazenly call for cutting holidays and increasing hours. So Martinot won few supporters. Patrick Artus, another economist, said, “Politically, it’s just not feasible. If Macron tries to cut leave for public sector workers, then he’s just not going to get elected in 2022.”

But of course the pressure of threatened unemployment will be used to make workers accept concessions. It has been heartening to see early resistance to the plans of the corporations. In Caudan in
Brittany, the Brittany Foundry saw protests in late May.

Around 250 employees gathered to block access to the site in order to protest against Renault’s possible closure of the factory. Renault is not short of money. In the last decade, the group has made some €24 billion in profits.

And on 30 May there were to be anti-racist mobilisations. These are good signs, but we need much more. Let’s not be held back by the methods or the hesitations of the past.