Ready for Change?: France’s Labour Reforms, China-US Trade and the Power of Political Culture

France’s May Day parade, an annual celebration of workers and labour rights on 1 May practiced around the world, became violent when masked demonstrators lashed out at police and set fire to a fast food restaurant. As union members and students paraded from Place de la Bastille towards the Place d’Italie, 1 200 masked and hooded demonstrators brought the march to a halt. Shouting anti-establishment slogans including “Everyone detests the police” and “Macron put us in a black rage,” the protestors launched projectiles at police, hurled stones at windows and damaged 31 shops and businesses. This far-left “Black bloc” group represent an opposition to the establishment, capitalism and globalization and serve as only extreme reactors to the French government’s attempts at labour reforms. Wide disavowal of the implementation of pro-business economic and social reforms is evident among public servants, labour workers and the unions that represent them. Trade unions have built a broad movement to resist the government’s plans, including three months of nation-wide strikes by staff of the state-run railway, SNCF.

 

Macron’s reforms, passed by executive order last September, aim to make the French labour market more efficient and competitive. This includes a complete overhaul of the SNCF and removal of railworkers’ historical privileges, including lifelong contracts and early retirement guarantees. Macron’s government seeks to encourage job and economic growth by granting private companies greater authority in their hiring and firing practices and consequently, fulfil his promise of decreasing the unemployment rate from 9.5 to 7.5%. By allowing French businesses to have greater say in who they employ, for how long, and compensating those employees with access to greater unemployment benefits and training, Macron’s centrist government hopes to allow flexibility in the labour market for employers while maintaining security for employees. Since the executive orders last fall, French unions have been protesting these measures, which they feel threaten their influence at the company level. Over the past year, union leaders have taken their members to the streets, in opposition to the changes made to the Code du Travail, a legislation that determines every aspect of French working life.

 

Despite this visible opposition, most French citizens support the government’s actions. Many elected Macron because of his promise to implement such labour reforms. Responding to a poll conducted by Le Figaro, 52% of French citizens agreed that the reforms are necessary and will succeed in helping French businesses and the economy. However, the strong union opposition shows the importance of strict protective measures for workers within the French working class and unions. Furthermore, with these actions, these unions prove they are still relevant and necessary to maintain political stability and security in France. Macron’s government seemingly underestimated the influence these organizations still hold in French society and the relevance of socialist values in French politics.

“[A] mandate is limited by what each party in any type of negotiation will accept or, more importantly, what it certainly will not accept.”

In any attempt to change the status quo, there is always a fear of instability and conflict. Alleviating that fear as much as possible should be the primary objective of any political leader, and is only achieved by recognizing that a mandate is limited by what each party in any type of negotiation will accept or, more importantly, what it certainly will not accept. As such, ignorance of the values and political culture that drive policy and international affairs threatens the stability and security of states faced with such challenges.

 

This clash within France that spurns anti-establishment sentiment and violence is indicative of a general trend of such sentiment throughout Europe and the world, and outlines the main point of contention as values based. French workers’ fierce protection of the Code du Travail and the rights guaranteed under this legislation indicates this deeply embedded political culture is important to internal stability and furthermore, that support from a specific segment of the population, i.e. workers and unions, remain vital to the security of France’s political process. Consequently, once policy runs counter to what that segment will allow, decision-makers will be held accountable for those decisions. In combination with the return of extremist politics in Europe, such accountability can be exhibited through violence, as made evident in France.

 

The implications of such a conclusion in a global context are clearly relevant to the ongoing trade negotiations between China and the United States. The American negotiating team is making significant demands on their Chinese counterparts, most specifically with regards to the imbalance of trade that disfavours America, and has been threatening to implement sanctions and penalties and provoke a trade war. Regardless of whether such an imbalance exists, China’s strong commitment to practicing an economic policy based on nationalist and nation-building principles prevent the state from accommodating such demands, including reducing the trade deficit by $100 Billion US. Instead, China will respond in kind, remaining committed to the Made in China 2025 initiative, and enter economic conflict with the US. The Trump administration’s threats of implementing tariffs on up to $60 billion US worth of imports from China as punishment for intellectual property infringement simply elicited a similar response from the Chinese government. Mr. Xi’s administration announced tariffs on 128 US products, including soybeans, pork and pipes. As such, China’s commitment to its nationalist economic policy is a priority over the clear economic loss from an economic conflict with the US, even with the risk of further escalating tensions.  If President Trump’s trade negotiating team hopes to protect and promote free trade, France’s example serves as a powerful lesson on the importance of recognizing the limitations of what serves as acceptable policy.

 

Photo : Manifestation du 1er mai 2018 à Paris (2018), by Jules Xenard.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Maria Pepelassis

Maria Pepelassis is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying history and political science. With a specific interest in defense and intelligence policies, she has widely researched American and Canadian institutional systems and how they inform policy and react to international affairs. Additionally, she is a former Glassen Scholar, having written on the implications of the internet on privacy for minors. She currently serves as a Program Editor at the NATO Association of Canada (NAOC), using this opportunity further her knowledge on international relations and Canada’s position in the global stage. With this experience, she hopes to have a better footing while pursuing an education and career in law.