In Europe - West

Interview with Yasser Louati, broadcast on The Real News Network, July 10, 2016, full transcript here:

French PM fast tracks bill that radically changes collective bargaining practices, leading citizens to take to the street and pressure a vote for his ouster
Countrywide protests in France on July 5, 2016 against gov't attacks on trade union bargaining rights (Philipe Laurenson, Reuters)

Countrywide protests in France on July 5, 2016 against gov’t attacks on trade union bargaining rights (Philipe Laurenson, Reuters)

Introduction by The Real News Network: France and the U.S. just got a little bit closer, in labor law, that is. This week, the French parliament passed a controversial labor law which would change the way labor contracts are negotiated. Before the vote, collective bargaining was between industries and workers. So, for example, all companies in the automobile industry would have to negotiate terms with unions that also were in the automobile industry.

But now, there is something called company-specific negotiations, meaning French automaker Peugeot would now be able to negotiate terms with Peugeot workers individually. This has caused quite a controversy in France. Unions, students and other groups have been protesting since April, and they say this new law would be a big blow to labor and everyday people.

Now joining us is one of the protesters and our guest today, Yasser Louati. He is a French human rights and civil liberties activist and researcher, and he joins us now from France.

* * *

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, The Real News Network : So Yasser, as I was saying in the intro, we have unions, students, organizations, even far [right] and left-wing politicians really against this new labor law. But folks didn’t even get a chance to debate this law because the prime minister issued sort of, I would compare it to kind of like a fast-track vote on this law.

So, before we get into the why, why this law didn’t get a debate and why people are against it so, I want to understand the interests behind the law, and where does the EU factor in when it comes to this narrative?

LOUATI: I mean, the EU dream is over. We know. We invented the EU to be a social entity, to work for the interests of the common people, but now the European Union is more working for the interests of big corporations, big money and the finance industry more than citizens of the European Union.

So, what’s happening today is that every single measure that was protecting employees in France, things we acquired from back in as early as the ’40s and ’50s and even the ’60s, is now being deconstructed and destroyed in favor of big money and the corporate sector.

What you see today happening in France is that people are not only marching against the law, what they call the labor reform or the Loi El Khomri. That’s just because they are scared. You know, unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, as high as back in 1997, and we have a government that is showing complete disdain for the people themselves, where you have Manuel Vallas using what you just called the fast track or the 49-3. It shows that the prime minister does not care. He will pass this law whether people agree on it or not, including within his own government and the parliament itself.

DESVARIEUX: Can you be more specific, Yasser? You said that it’s really hit labor really hard. Can you be specific and talk about what it actually does?

Yasser Louati, human rights activist and a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France

Yasser Louati, human rights activist and a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France

LOUATI: I mean, France has been known for decades as this country protecting the rights of employees, but this dream is over again with thanks to the European Union.

For instance, this law, for example, calls for the reducing of overtime compensation, reducing legal protection for employees, increasing the powers of employers and the corporate sector, capping compensation when unduly fired. Employers get more control over [working time modulation]. Companies can undergo redundancy plans without any justification and [inaud.] Pierre Gattaz, head of the MEDEF, which is France’s biggest employers’ union, he wants to be able to fire people without justification.

And he even goes beyond that, saying that this reform, called the labor reform, Loi travail or Loi El Khomri, won’t help against unemployment. It is just giving more protection and more advantages and privileges to the rich and powerful.

DESVARIEUX: But wait, Yasser, some people might say, hold on. This structure, yes, it might not be in France’s history in modern history, but it is a structure that resembles something that we have in the United States, and some people might say it’s not terrible, because you have workers and companies that can come together individually and sort of tailor their contracts to that individual company. What do you say to folks like that, who say this structure isn’t all bad?

LOUATI: [inaud.] My first job was to work as a captain in business education, and I’ve met many, many people in many countries, and everybody, you know, says the U.S. is not the example to follow. But what’s happening today in France, yes, a neoliberal turn has been taken, you know, to protect the privilege of companies, to give them more flexibility, less accountability. Well, let’s say, for example, in 1983 [France], you know, contributed to world GDP as high as 4.4 percent. Today our contribution, after al these neoliberal measures, this flexibility and giving more protection to companies, we are down to 2.5 percent.

In the meantime, unemployment is back to 3.5 million unemployed people, and that means at least 6 million people in France are living below the poverty line. So, I don’t think that’s progress. I think that’s class warfare with a vengeance.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the repression against the protests. It’s been quite fierce. More than two thousand people have been arrested. You’ve been involved in organizing all of this. Can you just tell us a little bit about the government repression, and what is the future for this movement now that we have the parliament that’s voted in favor of the law?

LOUATI: This bloody crackdown against the social movements is just a case of chicken coming home to roost. The political violence that went unchecked by our elites and even the everyday people and that was celebrated against Muslims, Romas and Black people in France, is now being applied against union leaders, environmentalists and every single person who disagrees with the government.

One of the biggest symbol here in this movement is that on May 13, right as the movement was gaining momentum, the minister of interior, Mr. Bernard Cazeneuve, said that they were receiving new rifles. How big of a symbol? People are marching to get jobs and protect the future of their kids, and your first thing, the first thing you think about is to get more rifles and to crack down even further against union leaders and marchers.

When you look at how these marches were brutally targeted, we even had helicopters throwing tear gas on innocent people. We had people losing their eyes, people getting beaten. We had undercover policemen showing up in the middle of the crowd and randomly beating down people and without being held accountable.

So, this shows that the government applied its measures against Muslims in the aftermath of the November attacks, and since those measures were deemed acceptable because those people don’t count and they have less rights, well guess what? What goes around comes around, and what I hope for is that my fellow comrades marching against the law stand together and [understand] that the common interest is not fighting one another but to fight for the common interest, and the common interest is to have secure jobs for ourselves and for our kids.

We can’t explain, for example, that we can cap compensation for workers but not for CEO paychecks, even when they bring their companies straight into the wall. For example, 44 billion dollars were given in subsidies to companies and they were supposed to hire one million people. Not one [inaud.] was hired, and Pierre Gattaz himself said, well, I’m sorry. I didn’t promise anything.

DESVARIEUX: When was that, Yasser?

LOUATI: A couple of months ago. The CIC was adopted about a year and a half or so, but a couple of weeks ago Pierre Gattaz, when he was questioned about his lack of commitment for getting the money without returning the favor by employing people, he said, oh well, you can’t buy jobs, I promised [inaud.]

DESVARIEUX: I got you. So, where are we in this process right now? It’s true that President Hollande now has to sign this law for it to become law, this bill, I should say, for it to become law. So, what are you and your fellow comrades, as you say, are going to do between now and then?

LOUATI: Call me a radical, but this calls for regime change. Because this law being passed today was proposed 10 years ago under Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. So, these new laws keep coming back every 5 or 10 years, and as long as governments don’t work for the interests first of the voters and then for everybody in this country, we have governments working on behalf of banks, big companies, even for the interests of Goldman Sachs and international corporations.

What needs now to be done is for the social movement not only to stand firm, but to continue pushing against the government. Even if the president signs this bill, we cannot accept that our government that was elected on promises to protect employees and [inaud.] to target the invisible enemy, it called the finance sector, and then see ourselves not only being fooled as voters but then being spent as disposable resources for big companies.

So, right now the struggle continues, and even if the president signs it, it means nothing, because right now the election is coming in less than a year, and we have to prepare for this upcoming election in about 11 months from now.

DESVARIEUX: No, when you say it means nothing, for some people they’d say it means everything, because isn’t that going to affect everyday people, like, immediately?

LOUATI: I think the way our governments work, especially here in the West, you know, state officials only understand [inaud.] They only vote against the strongest. Right now, who is strong is the big interests. The banking sector, the MEDEF, the employer federation, et cetera, but now the government will have to push itself.

If people continue to march in the streets, keep, you know, questioning the government’s legitimacy, and pressure members of parliament to adopt a motion of defiance against the government, we can hope that some MPs–we only need 58 of them to bring down this government. So far, 56 have signed but two were missing.

So, we have other MPs left. For example, [inaud.] is even reaching out to the UN because the government is questioning the decent standards of living of the everyday French person. So, regardless of what Francois Hollande does–And we know he will continue pushing. We know we have a brutal prime minister like Manuel Vallas. What matters right now is for our ranks not to be divided. [inaud.] among union leaders and among the everyday marchers who [are] justly concerned for themselves and their children.

Just one last point. For the first time in this century, kids will have lower standards of living than their parents. That’s quite worrisome, especially when you have 25 percent of our youth who are being unemployed.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. You said 56 MPs signed, what did they sign, exactly, just so we’re clear?

LOUATI: It’s called a motion of no confidence, meaning that they would [censure] the government. This can lead to the government being overthrown because the prime minister would no longer have a majority and the legitimacy to pass laws. But so far, and I’m sorry to be so blunt and I’m on the Real News, so my language will stay–[inaud.]

You have the House of Cards in the U.S. We have the house of cowards here, because every single time the prime minister brought forward extreme measures, MPs followed. They did not budge, did not question, but now the disaster is that they have set a precedent. The fact that the prime minster can decide alone what laws to be passed and without even debate or amendment or even some kind of resemblance of democracy means that members of parliament have to question. We voted for them and they owe us loyalty by protecting our interests. Right now they are just protecting their careers and their political agreements.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Yasser Louati. Thank you so much for being with us.


French unions stage protests as anti-worker bill forced through

FRENCH unions staged a last-ditch protest yesterday as the government forced an EU-dictated attack on workers’ rights through a hostile parliament.

“This is a counter-productive law socially and economically,” said CGT member Marie-Jose Kotlicki. “The government is making a mistake in underestimating the level of discontent over this law,” she said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s government was forced to invoke special constitutional powers to pass the ‘El Khomri Bill’ after MPs from his own Socialist Party rebelled and voted with the opposition. “This is sad, compromise was possible,” said Laurent Baumel, one of 30 or more Socialists who opposed the law as a betrayal of left-wing principles. “Valls seems to have refused out of customary intransigence.”

The legislation will undermine collective bargaining by allowing employers to opt out of industry-wide agreements on some matters. It will also raise the weekly working time limit from 35 hours to 46.

The government used the same mechanism to pass the Bill’s earlier reading in May. Late last month, the government attempted to ban protests as it passed through the Senate, but was forced to relent.

Before the vote, leading Socialist rebel Christian Paul warned Mr Valls that he risked further alienating left-wing voters ahead of next year’s presidential elections if he overrode parliamentary opponents. “It would be politically devastating,” he said. “I am telling the prime minister there’s a way out. Otherwise things will run off the rails for the government.”

Mr Paul urged the government to add a guarantee that overtime pay rates can never go below an extra 25 per cent.

The major CGT union federation, other unions and student organisations marched through the streets of Paris against the Bill. In an interview with the communist newspaper l’Humanite, CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez vowed to keep fighting the undemocratic law as “the anger is still there.”

“Public opinion is unfavourable, the trade unions oppose it and their is no majority in the National Assembly for the vote,” he said. Mr Martinez said that in the coming weeks the CGT would “lead the people” against the law.


French government forces labor law through parliament, shrugs off protests

By Brian Love and Emile Picy, Reuters, Tuesday, July 5, 2016

PARIS – France’s government, overriding street protests and rebels in its own ranks, invoked special powers on Tuesday to impose labor legislation by decree that will make it easier for employers to hire and fire staff.

President Francois Hollande’s government hopes the labor reform will cut stubbornly high unemployment. But less than a year from elections, the decision to ram through the contested reform without parliamentary support is a political gamble for the unpopular Hollande and a Socialist government targeted by mounting left-wing violence.

Thousands marched through Paris and other cities on July 5 under heavy police presence in what labor unions say will be the last of a dozen such demonstrations before a summer holiday hiatus. Turnout estimates varied – 45,000 according to the CGT union but no more than 7,500 according to police – but were in any case lower than in previous rallies.

Right-wingers walked out of the National Assembly and rebels in his own party watched, stone-faced, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced he would use constitutional powers to bypass the lower house of parliament during a second review of the reform. “My government is determined to move forward, because the tactics of some … cannot be allowed to block the country,” Valls said in a swipe at Socialist rebels who refused to vote for the law.

At issue are reforms designed to cut a 10 percent jobless rate by making it easier to hire and fire. It would also allow firms tailor pay and work terms to company needs more easily.

“This is sad,” said Laurent Baumel, one of 30 or more Socialists who contend the law betrays left-wing principles. “Valls seems to have refused out of customary intransigence.”

The dissidents narrowly failed to muster enough sponsors in May to table a vote of no confidence in their government during the first reading of the labor reform. They were weighing options on Tuesday. A no-confidence bill is unlikely to pass.

“This move is an admission of failure,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT union that has led the protests, said of the government’s decision to bypass parliament.

Violence during months of street protests resulted in almost 2,000 arrests and left hundreds of riot police hurt in running battles with gangs of ultra-violent youths, many of them chanting anti-capitalist slogans.

That violence on the fringe of street marches has coalesced with other anti-government acts. Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said on Tuesday 30 Socialist party buildings had been attacked in recent weeks, including one sprayed with gunfire.


Unions reject French government amendments to labour law reform

By Brian Love, Reuters, Thursday, June 30, 2016

PARIS, June 30 (Reuters) – French government efforts to end a sometimes violent showdown with trade unions over plans to loosen labour laws were dealt a blow on Thursday when unions rejected new amendments.

President Francois Hollande wants to make it easier for firms to hire and fire staff in an effort to bring down double-digit unemployment before next year’s presidential election, but unions say the reforms badly erode workers’ rights.

One of the most contentious articles focuses on handing more power to individual companies to negotiate pay and working conditions. At the moment, those discussions take place at the sector level, where unions have more clout.

On Wednesday, the government offered unions more of a say in determining workers’ terms at industry level than currently set out in the bill, while still shifting the emphasis towards companies.

Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardline CGT union that has spearheaded a dozen street protests in Paris, said the amendments fell short of its demands. “The government remains deaf to our proposals,” the CGT and six other unions said in a joint statement on Thursday.

In comments published by Le Parisien newspaper, Martinez said: “This will play out in the streets.” Turnout in recent protests has however fallen sharply.

The planned reforms have driven a wedge between the ruling Socialist Party’s traditional left and more reform-minded allies of Hollande. The bill was forced though the lower house of parliament by decree, through a constitutional clause known as 49:3, in the face of a rebellion.

Hollande said late on Wednesday he would do the same again when the legislation returns to the National Assembly for a final reading on July 5, if dissident Socialist lawmakers maintained their opposition. “Let there be no doubt on this. The law will be voted on and signed off on time. I would like to see majority backing for it. Short of that, it will be a case of recourse again to article 49:3,” he told Les Echos newspaper.

Forensic police were called in on Wednesday to investigate an overnight fire that damaged the Bordeaux offices of the moderate CFDT union, which backs the reform. “There’s no doubt the fire was deliberate,” a CFDT spokesman said.

Unions opposing the bill have scheduled a protest for July 5.

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris and Claude Canellas in Bordeaux; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Roche)

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