Unemployed Disrupt Business As Usual in France
Revolutionary Worker #942, February 1, 1998
In France, the unemployment rate has been over 12 percent for several years. This translates into more than 3 million people without jobs--including a million who have not had work for over a year. The unemployment rate is even higher among the youth. And there are others who have been out of work for so long that they have dropped out of official statistics.
Since late November, many of these unemployed have been taking action to protest the lack of work and to demand higher unemployment and welfare benefits. They have staged sit-ins at government offices, stock exchanges and banks and blocked rail lines. Thousands have marched in the streets.
Richard Dethyre, head of one of the national unemployed associations in France, said, "People who used to be just statistics have finally raised their heads."
The protests began after the French government, headed by the Socialist Party, announced a tiny increase in welfare benefits to hundreds of thousands of people whose unemployment benefits have run out. The increase, amounting to just $7.50 a month, only fueled people's anger. Many unemployed workers said the increase was an "insult."
The takeovers of unemployment and welfare offices began in the southern city of Marseilles and in the economically depressed regions in northern France--where the unemployment rates are significantly higher than the national average. By the end of December, protesters were occupying dozens of government offices throughout France. In Marseilles itself, eight unemployment offices were taken over by protesters. On December 29, about 200 unemployed people blocked trains at the main train station in Marseilles. Another group of protesters disrupted railway travel between Paris and the southwestern Bordeaux region by sitting down on the tracks.
In Lyons, the second largest French city, protesters occupied the offices of Credit Lyons, a major government-owned bank. On January 4, unemployed people and supporters took over a toll gate on a busy highway in central France and let drivers go through without paying.
On New Year's Eve, about 60 homeless people in Paris clashed with police when they stormed two luxury Paris establishments. When they attempted a sit-in at the Royal Monceau hotel, the manager offered them several hundred dollars to leave. One demonstrator threw the money on the floor and said, "We're not asking for charity." Then they occupied the Fouquet restaurant, where rich diners spend hundreds of dollars on a single meal. The demonstrators left after the management promised to deliver dinners to a group occupying a city welfare center.
The protesters' demands have included more jobs, an increase in benefits, and a "bonus" check for the holiday period. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin came into office last year promising to create 700,000 jobs. But the governments of France and other Western European imperialist countries have agreed to move toward a common currency--as part of trying to strengthen their competitive edge against the U.S. and Japanese imperialists. And this has meant sharp attacks on the people, such as "downsizing" of workplaces and cutbacks in social programs.
These attacks have come down most harshly on those without jobs. But the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out that "France's registered jobless are only the most visible part of a swelling underclass of 7 million who must make do with part-time or casual employment." French opinion polls have shown that two-thirds of the general population support the protests by unemployed activists.
As the protests continued in the new year, the government announced another small concession--a special emergency grant of a billion francs--about $165 million--to the unemployed. But this works out to less than $60 for each unemployed worker. And the government refused to raise monthly benefits.
Right after handing out this puny carrot, the government came down with a big stick. A top government official demanded an end to the occupation of government offices and declared that "nothing today justifies the continuation of these illegal actions." The government then ordered riot cops on January 10 to move out the occupiers by force. But a couple of days later, many of the offices were re-occupied by protesters.
On January 13, there were large marches by the unemployed and others in Paris, Marseilles, Arras, Grenoble and other cities. About 10,000 took part in the march in the capital alone. About 300 protesters briefly took over the Paris Stock Exchange. The protesters dropped water and trash on the police from a balcony and wrote "Death to Speculators" and "Give Us Some Money to Live" on the walls.
Many of the protests have included contingents of immigrants from African and Asian countries. Discrimination and racist attacks against immigrants in France are on the increase--as right-wing groups scapegoat immigrants as the cause of the economic and social problems in the country. At a January 7 rally outside the National Employment Agency in Paris, a spokesperson for Sans Papiers de Saint Bernard, a group of undocumented immigrants, said, "While immigrant workers are blamed for unemployment, the unemployed and undocumented are demonstrating together in the streets so they won't be able to divide us and pick us off one by one."
In Strasbourg, a city on the French-German border, high unemployment and racist police brutality touched off a youth rebellion on New Year's Eve. The mayor of the city said it was the biggest "riot" there since 1974. According to news reports, more than 50 cars, 32 bus shelters and 22 telephone booths were destroyed, and homemade bombs went off in several locations. A dozen people between the ages of 13 and 20 were arrested.
Unemployment runs as high as 35 percent in Strasbourg. Run-down housing projects are home to poor and working class immigrants, many from Algeria, Morocco and other Northern African countries. There are similar housing projects around Paris and most other French cities.
Like Black youth in the U.S., a whole generation of young North Africans in France has been criminalized by the system. One sociologist said, "The word `youth' has become a synonym in France for `North African juvenile delinquent.' " In December, police shot and killed a 16-year-old North African youth at a roadblock near Fontainebleau. Several days later, an unemployed 24-year-old from a housing project in Lyons was killed by a cop at a police station.
At the housing projects in Strasbourg, the walls of the buildings are filled with graffiti saying "Down with the Police!"
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