Today, when the giant festival of the European Football Championship opens at a number of venues around France, he sees it as a personal victory that millions of football fans will be hit by the wave of strikes that washes over France. Philippe Martinez, leader of the militant trade union CGT, has no sympathy for either the French or upwards of a million Swedish, British, German and Dutch supporters.
It is not a battle of David against Goliath. It’s one man blackmailing the French state. A state and a government that has proved incapable of modernising itself. The battle is around a new labour law that brings France in line with other West European countries.
France today is a country that has lost its faith in the future and now it also has begun to lose its identity.
When I drive through France on a sunny June morning, I am struck by the high quality of the highways, the large industrial buildings that increase each year. In the small villages on the outskirts are now growing the planned single-family estates at a rapid pace. The French high-speed trains, the TGV, get more and more country-wide tracks. France stands out as a country of booming growth. The truth is quite different.
The France that I met in the early eighties as a newly appointed foreign correspondent was a land full of confidence and optimism. Still Gallic in itself, relatively few who spoke English or cared about their environment. Although unsuccessful, the new left government policy and the fight against the right were merciless. But it fell within in the rules of the game.
Today, there are no rules, no future. Distrust of politicians is total, the media groping without an overview, suburban problems have been cemented, the young dream of moving abroad in the hope of finding jobs and better prospects. France is a country with a weak government, a historically unpopular president and a population that keep their distance from the political parties. And it is here that Philippe Martinez, a man with a bushy moustache and a revolutionary spirit, as taken from the history books, comes into the picture again. It requires foreign observers to see that France is a country that is not going to reform, only revolutions seem to push the country forward.
In school, French children learn from the beginning a thought pattern: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Everything is opposed until they can reach a balance.
CGT, which was formed in 1898, and then in cooperation with the once powerful French Communist Party, has today only 2.6% of French employees as members. But most of them are within the government sectors and not least in the transport and energy supply.
While we in Sweden have left the largest parts of regulating the labour market to its partners and have been satisfied with regulating the working environment and introduced MBL and LAS, France still has detailed state labour laws. 3280 pages. Legislation that today is completely anachronistic and cripples French society. Labour law, Code du Travail, is known to be longer than the Bible, with all its micromanagement.
But in all this, it is especially the proposed new Article 2 which brought CGT out into violent protests. Where the State tries to transfer the contract negotiations for trade agreements to the local level, i.e. within companies. This would break CGT’s power because employees, in one blow, would face a boss who had the opportunity to direct negotiations with their staff. An open way for compromises.
Winner takes all. If Martinez loses his fight against the government, then CGT’s saga will be almost done and the more moderate CFDT union will take over. In a show a false strength, Philippe Martinez has ordered his core troops to strike at the French oil refineries, nuclear power plants and at both the local and the national transport sector.
For a while there was a glaring petrol shortage across the country. Now when I drive along the roads of France, there are handwritten notes that say “diesel finished,” or “Super 98” finished. A few petrol stations have been shut down completely. The state has gone in and opened their reserve stocks, meant for times of crisis. Every third or fourth train is cancelled. But behind these spectacular challenges from the revolutionary dreamers are so many other signs that show that France is a danger unto itself and to Europe.
While the media focuses on a possible Brexit so you cannot see how another of the European Community’s core countries is losing ground and influence at breakneck speed.
All the forms of employment that are accepted in most of Western and Southern Europe in order to make it possible for young people to enter the labour market is a red rag to French youth brought up to believe that a career with more or less life-long job security is a must . A more flexible labour market, which is the government’s target, is interpreted solely as lifelong insecurity. When they wanted to raise the retirement age to 62 years, over a dozen years ago secondary schools emptied of young people who walked out in protest demonstrations.
Liberty, equality and fraternity as we love to see France in effect hides a corporatist society, a conservative society where every change by default is seen as a deterioration.
While the European football championship should unite the French in wanting to show off their country from its best side but instead the pilot unions at Air France go on strike without warning only to try to improve their own conditions which are unrelated to the new legislation. Sanitation workers as well. Already, the rubbish is piling up in some places in Paris and Marseille.
Employer Organisation Chairman Pierre Gattaz talks about the strikers as terrorists, Frenchmen in general point out that only 8 percent of the workforce are in unions compared to ten times that number in northern Europe. The more pragmatic and even larger CFDT union has met with the government. Stephan Sirat, a historian specialising in strikes and trade union matters, notes that the CGT has lost its backbone as the Communist Party has more or less disappeared, and now is fighting wildly for its survival.
No one has even dared to count the billions lost for the French industry. Supporters will miss their highly anticipated games due to cancelled flights and trains. Those who have chosen the car will meet signs noting that diesel is finished.
Just hours before the inauguration of the Championship the Prime Minister Valls appealed in vain to Philippe Martinez. The other day the government designated parts of the country as disaster areas after extensive flooding. Now there is the fear of terrorism. A nightmare start to the European Championship.
While the media claim that studies show that closes to half of the French people support the strikes the facts are that the French people answered to something completely different. It is a tired depressed population’s reaction to an establishment that has taken over French politics and live in a world far from ordinary people. Around Europe politicians and journalists are now afraid that “populists” are gaining ground.
They blame it on the voters, they are attracted by unrealistic tones. The voters themselves respond that politicians and media are tone-deaf. Whoever sits in the car with the driver does not have to think about petrol shortages, those who cycle to work in the inner city do not care about Metro strikes. Those who have jobs do not worry about those who have not.
But Philippe Martinez, in all his revolutionary arrogance, has not understood that the time is not right. It is not at the European Cup, a football celebration that is not only watch on television but also at the filled grandstands and in front of the big screens at the plaza de France, where one calls for revolution. Martinez has bet everything on one card. He considered that the government would give way for the European Championships. But in France hours before kick-off, I hear repeatedly comments that this match Martinez will lose. The football parable is lame, by this Frenchmen mean, it was not fair play.
It was an extortion, hostage-taking. And suddenly, instead of the otherwise increasing unpopularity, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the child of Spanish immigrants just as Philippe Martinez, received a wave of sympathy he could only dream of.