Suddenly France is veering into one of those dramatic social conflicts to which it alone seems to know the secret.
After two months of rolling but unspectacular demonstrations against the government’s contested labour law, in the space of a week the stakes have changed.
Now we have angry queues at petrol stations, citizens unable to drive to work, tyres burning at oil refineries, and the spectre of power cuts if nuclear workers join.
What has happened is that one particular trade union – the CGT – has made a strategic decision.
Two weeks ago Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls – after consultation with President Hollande – decided to push the unpopular labour law through the National Assembly without a vote.
It is a power that all governments have under the Fifth Republic constitution, and it has been used about 50 times since 1958.
- Blockades cause fuel shortages across France
- The jokes on social media
- Protests as Valls forces labour laws through
- Violence mars Paris police protest
- Hollande’s last throw of the dice
The use of Article 49-3 (to use the jargon) was a sign that the government was determined to stand firm on its labour reform.
But the CGT – with the Force Ouvriere union and other hardline allies – came to a different conclusion.
They saw 49-3 as a mark of weakness. Why else would the government bypass parliament, unless it was unsure of its own ranks?
Go for broke
They took heart from opinion polls showing that a majority of the population is still opposed to the reform.
And they calculated that President Hollande – an unpopular, unrespected politician whose instinct has always been to compromise – would never have the stomach for a fight.
So they decided to go for broke.
For the CGT, a union with historic links to the Communists, this means applying pressure at those strategic nodes where it has strength: petrochemicals, ports and railways.
The government may well bemoan an illegal abuse of the right to strike.
The CGT’s Philippe Martinez retorts that it was the government that first ignored the will of the people: first by introducing pro-business reforms that were never in its manifesto, then by overriding the nation’s elected representatives.
It is a highly precarious confrontation, in which the eventual loser stands to lose more than just the battle.
The CGT is engaged – as ever – in a power-struggle with the other union blocs.
French unions are weak in members (the CGT represents just 3% of the workforce), but strongly entrenched in France’s institutional structures.
Being the biggest union bloc means more seats on public bodies like the social security authority, more jobs, and more public money.
Face-off with high stakes
Having taken the path of confrontation against a Socialist government, the CGT is now in open warfare against its main rival – the CFDT – which has decided to back the labour reform.
Union elections are due next year. Defeat in this face-off could spell a long period of decline for the CGT – a union regularly accused of being stuck ideologically several decades in the past.
But for the Hollande-Valls tandem, the stakes are even higher.
Two months ago the president was forced to abandon a previous piece of important legislation. This was the bid to change the constitution so that terrorists could be stripped of French citizenship.
Were he also to back down on the labour reform, it would be an admission of total incapacity. Manuel Valls would almost certainly resign, and for the last year of his mandate the president would be a cypher.
Surrender would also be an act of monumental betrayal against the moderate union bloc – the CFDT – which is currently the government’s ally.
Today the CFDT is one of the fiercest critics of the CGT’s policy of radicalisation. If the government gives in – and scraps or rewrites the labour reform – the CFDT will pay the price.
So where will it end?
The crunch will come in the next two or three weeks – probably around the time that the European football championships start on 10 June.
The hardline unions are banking that the government will do anything to avoid embarrassment over such an important sporting event – and so will back down.
The government is banking that the CGT does not have the troops it says it has and that public opinion will blame the protesters if there are protracted fuel shortages – especially if there is violence.
Ultimately the football may also help, simply by becoming the new national preoccupation.
Between now and then, though, the French are girding for another kind of showdown.
French labour reform bill – main points
- The 35-hour week remains in place, but as an average. Firms can negotiate with local trade unions on more or fewer hours from week to week, up to a maximum of 46 hours
- Firms are given greater freedom to reduce pay
- The law eases conditions for laying off workers, strongly regulated in France. It is hoped companies will take on more people if they know they can shed jobs in case of a downturn
- Employers given more leeway to negotiate holidays and special leave, such as maternity or for getting married. These are currently also heavily regulated