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France: Amnesty for Bosses, None for Workers

by TOM GILL

France’s socialist government stands accused of ditching yet another pledge after it rejected this week a campaign for an amnesty of workers convicted for offences during strikes and other protest actions.

The bill, which excludes those found guilty of physical violence, is ‘an act of justice towards all employees and trade unionists struggling to keep their jobs at a time when unemployment is at a record high’ argues Pierre Laurent, national secretary of the French Communist Party, whose Left Front alliance with the Left Party and other radicals drafted and tabled the legislation.

The Left Party has condemned the announcement by Alain Vidalies, minister for parliamentary relations, on French radio Wednesday that the government would not support the bill, which came just days after the adoption of changes that limit the time employees have to appeal dismissals under lay-offs concerning more than 10 workers, part of labour ‘reform’ package that  Laurent describes as one more ‘amnesty’ for bosses.

Despite government promises to fight to protect employment, mass lay-offs and factory closures are accelerating, with those out of work hitting a record 3.2 million, putting trade unionists and citizens in the frontline of defending jobs.

The Petroplus oil refinery, in Normandy, is the latest casualty of France’s industrial collapse. It faces closure with the loss of 470 jobs, and follows the news of the shut-down of the Peugeot-Citroen car plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois north east of Paris, the Goodyear tyre factory in Amiens and the Arcelor-Mittal blast furnaces at Florange. US-based IT company IBM is another major employer whose job destroying plans have hit the headlines in recent days, even as it gears up to hand out huge dividends to shareholders.

Socialist President Francois Hollande had pledged to reverse the austerity measures, pursued by his predecessor NIcolas Sarkozy, in France and at a European level, that are killing French jobs, driving people into poverty, decimating communities, and meanwhile ruining the public finances. But so far, the story has been punishing cuts at home and a complete failure to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel abroad. Hollande’s defence of le peuple  has all been talk.

The popular sense of injustice, that the law and politicians from France’s two main parties are geared to serving the interests of the very rich and corporations, has increased in the wake of revelations that a French minister who was supposed to be cracking down tax dodging had hid for years disgustingly large sums in an illegal offshore bank account while the former Socialist Party treasurer and head of Hollande’s Presidential campaign fund had invested in two Cayman Islands offshore companies.

Then came the expose by US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where France’s BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole were fingered, among a number of major banks around the globe, together with various ‘high net worth individuals’, for their role in hiding billions from the tax man in offshore tax havens.

Rallying behind the government’s position against the amnesty bill is the right-wing opposition UMP party of Sarkozy, who is under investigation over allegations he took illegal donations to run his 2007 election campaign from France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, and which as a political movement is the most unhealthily close to big business.

Earlier this month, the socialist-controlled Senate passed the draft ‘social amnesty’ law, which relates to convictions since 2007, and the bill is set to return to the lower house in May. Jean-Vincent Placé, leader of the Greens (EELV) in the Senate, has called for a rebellion in the House of Deputies in May, recalling that not only had socialists senators backed the bill but that the Socialist leadership had a standing commitment to support it.

The Greens are close allies of Hollande’s socialist administration while the Left Front also provides parliamentary support for some socialist legislation, after having swung behind Hollande in the second round run-off against Sarkozy in the Presidential elections last Spring.

The Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received an impressive degree of support his bid for the Elysee Palace, has accused Hollande of ‘duplicity,’ saying the socialist leader had promised, ‘eye to eye’ that he would pass the bill.

There has been much hostility to the bill, described by news agency AFP, as ‘destructive’, with the focus on news reports of workers’ and union activists kidnapping bosses, occupying of factories or public buildings, damaging property and the recent clashes between Goodyear workers and police.

But far from inflaming social tensions, as the right-wing UMP party suggests, for Éric Aubin, a member of the national executive of the CGT union, the bill would help ‘calm’ the social climate by tackling ‘disproportionate’ punishment of union activists.

For example, in a campaign to stop a labour exchange closing, a militant was fined simply for putting up a poster on a public building; one activist earned a two months’ suspended prison sentence, and was banned from standing for office for five years, all for throwing an egg.

Trade unionists are cast in the mainstream media as ‘thugs who will set fire to anything’, says Aubin. ‘Our activists are placed on the same level as thugs who kill – this is crazy!’

‘To those who say that violence is not legitimate in the social struggle, I say  look first at the violence deployed by employers. Job cuts, plant closures … Often the first victims are unions and employees. And yet they try to sell the idea that we are the violent ones, the vandals, which is absolutely not the case. The amnesty law would restore some justice. ”

The bill is in line with a tradition that sees each new French President  grant amnesties, says the Left Front.

The draft law argues that ‘collective action’ is an ‘inherent right in all democracies’. It says ‘citizens who defend their school, their work tools or their pensions are neither criminals not delinquents.’  The legislation would bring these people justice in line with Article 8 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, according to which: ‘The Law must prescribe only the punishments that are strictly and evidently necessary’.

Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com

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Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.

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