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Class Struggle at Air France

On Monday, about 100 employees stormed an Air France management and union official meeting that was discussing dramatic job cuts. As the negotiations had been making no progress, the staff became angry, and tussled with some company officials. Two Air France executives had their shirts torn off. Xavier Broseta, the airline’s head of human resources, escaped the scene by climbing a chain-link fence, bare-chested, while Pierre Plissonnier, the head of long-haul flights, was escorted away by security guards with his suit and shirt in tatters.

The spectacular images were shown around the world and provoked dismay and outcry in the media. Protesters were presented as a “mob”. Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, declared that he was “scandalised” by the “unacceptable violence”. He unequivocally backed Air France management, still a partially state-owned company. Emmanuel Macron, the finance minister, tweeted that the violence was “irresponsible” and “nothing can replace social dialogue”. Fearing a media backlash, most trade unions condemned the violence.

Air France management are planning to cut 2,900 jobs in the next two years. The rationale is to reduce costs to compete with low-cost companies. Several weeks of “negotiations” have proved fruitless because Air France management have set conditions which are impossible for the unions to accept. The company demands from their pilots that they work an extra 200 hours a year for the same salary; several routes will be closed; and 400 pilots will be made redundant. To defeat the well-organised pilot union is only the first part of the attack against workers’ rights. Then the hostesses and stewards will be asked to work more for the same pay and will get fewer resting days, and the cabin crews will be downsized.

Alexandre de Juniac, the Air France-KLM chief executive, has announced that the company would go ahead with the cuts and redundancies regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. De Juniac is even by Anglo-American business standards a patron voyou (rogue boss). In a jaw-dropping talk he gave in front of businesspeople in December 2014 , he condemned the 35-hour working week (a popular reform among salaried workers in France), questioned whether there should be a legal retirement age at all, and wondered whether the ban on underage workers should not be lifted. Worst of all, he found it amusing to share with the audience a conversation he had with his Qatar Airways counterpart. The latter confided to him that there could never be any strikes in Qatar as pilots would be sent to jail. This is a rather chilling story when one knows that cost reductions are implemented in order to compete with Gulf rivals.

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the workforce are fed up and combative: their basic working conditions and underlying rights are under attack. The airline workers have embraced the roots of French trade unionism: anarcho-syndicalism (syndicalisme means trade union in French). In the late 19th century, it was a workers’ movement that advocated direct action by the working class. This type of trade unionism was anti-parliamentarian, as professional politicians could not be trusted to represent the interests of the working people (this included social democratic parties). It remained an influential force amongst workers until the first world war. In the 1890s, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) – then and still today the main French union – promoted this type of direct action (notably the general strike) and “revolutionary unionism”, organising its members around Fédération des Bourses du Travail (Labour Exchanges).

Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Strength), declared that “you can fight a management without being violent. This is not part of our traditions.” But does he really know the traditions of French syndicalism in the first place? It is ironic that the tearing of a couple of shirts and of a suit should provoke an international outcry when hardly anyone points to the symbolic violence of Air France management. Why would the media and some of our politicians not hold Air France management to account for their assault on the lives of thousands of people? There is a wealth of academic literature showing that unemployment or poor working conditions can lead to poverty, depression, divorce, suicide and the destruction of entire families.

This is not free violence on the part of the strikers: people genuinely fear for their future and the future of their families. The attack on the Air France workforce should be placed in the wider context of the constant undermining of workers’ rights under the François Hollande presidency. When workers start holding managers hostage, or “boss-napping”, they do not do it for fun or because they are a “violent mob”. They do it as a last resort to draw attention to their desperate cause.

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Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

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