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The French Connection: An Interview About the Spring Unrest in France

News ArchiveParis, France & Montpelier, Vermont, March 31st 2006 - Over the course of the last thirty days, France has been rocked by a series of escalating demonstrations and mass labor strikes. The unrest is by and large a reaction to a new law passed by the center-right government which repeals job security guaranteed for young workers. Where previously all French workers were protected against unjust firings, now many people, mainly those 28 and younger, can be fired at anytime during a two year probationary period. The French working class and student population has outright rejected the new measures and have demanded their immediate repeal. The French Connection:

An Interview With Xavier Massot
On The Growing Unrest In France

*Reprinted From Catamount Tavern News, Vermont

By David Van Deusen

Paris, France & Montpelier, Vermont, March 31st 2006 - Over the course of the last thirty days, France has been rocked by a series of escalating demonstrations and mass labor strikes. The unrest is by and large a reaction to a new law passed by the center-right government which repeals job security guaranteed for young workers. Where previously all French workers were protected against unjust firings, now many people, mainly those 28 and younger, can be fired at anytime during a two year probationary period. The French working class and student population has outright rejected the new measures and have demanded their immediate repeal. While the government has thus far refused to rescind the law, millions of students and workers have repeatedly marched in the streets of every major French city and have crippled capitalist institutions by walking off their jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Many of these demonstrations have turned violent, with workers and students fighting police with stones and makeshift batons. As of this writing, no compromise is in sight. While the government has offered to negotiate with the unions, organized labor has refused to come to the table until the law is first repealed.

Catamount Tavern News interviewed Xavier Massot, who currently resides in Paris, about the situation. Mr. Massot, 29, a longtime Brattleboro resident and former Mike’s bartender (on Elliot Street), is an artist and co-author of The Black Bloc Papers (Breaking Glass Press, 2006). He is also a self described anarchist and former guitar player for the Putnigs (a southern Vermont rock and roll band). He holds duel citizenship in the US and France, and is an ethnic Breton. Xavier has been living in Paris for the last six months and is due to return to the Green Mountains later this spring. We talked to him by phone.

CT News: “Mr. Massot, what can you tell us about the situation on the ground in Paris?”

Xavier: “There are thousands of demonstrators in the streets nearly everyday. Most are students and workers. A few hundred [a very small minority] appear to be fascists who are not out to protest the law, but to physically attack the left. They [the fascists] are also being counter-attacked by the anarchists… But mostly people are pissed off at the government…

“While I am generally in agreement with the students and striking workers… it should be understood that the law itself is not necessarily all that bad. It is just what has been picked up as the topic. The greater thing [motivating people] is a general sense of being a pissed off society.”

CT News: “Workers and students are by far the largest segment of the protesters. Besides the obvious issue of ‘workers rights’ what is bringing these people into the streets by the millions?”

Xavier: “Young people in France, much like in America, are realizing that for the first time in a long time they are in the frontline of a new generation that is just not going to do as well as the generations before them. This tends to motivate people… [Also] France has a culture of protest. It’s not as alien or as shocking for people to go out in the street and complain out loud about what they are pissed about as it is in the US. [Protest] is a custom, you know. In fact, when your trying to get somewhere by subway in Paris, depending on the day and if you didn’t see the news the night before, there is a good chance the trains aren’t going to be running [because of a strike].”

CT News: “What can you tell us about the law itself?”

Xavier: “The thing that stinks about it is that it amounts to a two year contract, so you basically are on a two year probation with your employer [during which you can be fired at anytime and for any reason]… If you switch to another company during those two years then you have to start over… [The law is also] misleading. In its official title it includes the term ‘First Employment’ in the name, but it has nothing to do with whether or not your at your first job because you could be 26 and by the time you get out from under it you’re 28… or even older… The thing is, [the law] was poorly delivered, it was hastily written, and nobody important was first consulted... It was a totally botched, hurried job.”

CT News: “In the face of the growing public pressure, will the government repeal the law?”

Xavier: “I’m not sure. If I had to guess I say either the Prime Minister will resign and the law will stay, or the law will go and the Prime Minister will stay.”

CT News: “Right now France provides its people with many social benefits such as universal healthcare, six weeks paid vacations, subsidized higher education, a thirty five hour work week, etc.. Do you see this law as a first step in an attempt to dismantle the French social system? Are there parallels between what is going on in France today, and Margaret Thatcher’s dismantling of the British welfare state in the 1980s?”

Xavier: “No. No, I think that [the French social system] is something nobody wants to lose at all.”

CT News: “What was the government’s intention with the law? What did they hope to get out of it?”

Xavier: “The notion was, I think, that it was going to be a quick fix –a way to satisfy the Arab underclass. [As far as the government was concerned] the thought was that if you make it easier to fire people, then employers would be quicker to hire people, especially those from the Arab minority who suffer from very high unemployment. But [the law] was poorly written, and ultimately a waste of time… It was a clumsy attempt at something, and it shows the bad faith of politicians who put it together.”

CT News: “So the government’s idea was that they would create more jobs, especially for minorities, by allowing the bosses to fire people more freely, and now, of course, the young people and workers (Arabs included) are rejecting the plan as no more than a weakening of workers’ rights. With that being said, could you elaborate on the situation regarding the minority Arab population in France?”

Xavier: “[In the 1980s] French President Mitterand [a Socialist] said that ‘France is a land of asylum’, which is true, but… [that statement] brought a lot more immigrants than I think he was arguing for. [Eds: The North African population in France accounts for 10% of the total population.] That has become a problem because on the one hand a lot of French people are resentful of the immigrants when they really shouldn’t be. On the other hand a lot of the immigrants are pissed off because they think they got sold onto the wrong deal. So that is going to have to be figured out… Everybody is pissed off. That is the problem.”

CT News: “Of course late last year, much of France was ablaze with riots emanating from Arab ghettos. The rioters claimed that they were reacting to the institutional racism of the French State. How deep does racism against Arabs go in France? Have you personally witnessed such racism?”

Xavier: “In certain housing projects, in some of the newer nicer ones, there is a quota on apartments based on last names. So if you have a foreign sounding last name there will be something like only three slots open. So they will only have something like two Arabs out of every fifty people… Speaking personally, my sister and her fianc(c) were trying to get an apartment, and his last name is a Greek name… And if my parents [who are from France and have a French sounding name] hadn’t interceded on his behalf they wouldn’t have been allowed to move in because the owner didn’t want a foreigner in the building.”

CT News: “I would like to get back to the current situation with the strikes and demonstrations. What do you see being the short and long term effects of this upheaval?”

Xavier: “The one group who may experience a lasting change from all this is the unions. They are really pissed and they’ve been waiting for something like this for a while now. The [center-right] Prime Minister slapped them around for a little bit when they’ve wanted to talk to him, so they are pretty outraged… [The unions] have handled these protests really well. They’ve gone out and really talked to people. They’re the ones who have made the politicians move the most… I think a lot of the people who are protesting students right now will have more of an affinity for the unions when they get into the workplace.

“As far as the electoral tide goes [in the upcoming national elections], I’d say of the young vote… maybe 70%... will be overwhelmingly to the left [the Socialist Party], but not the hard left… [However] the syndrome of the [moderate] left and [moderate] right seeming very much the same, as in the US, is very much a tendency in France… Therefore, I think French politics will begin to change… In the next couple of years someone may get elected who is not of the middle left or middle right [i.e. the growing neo-Trotskyite parties left of the official Communist Party]. That is very possible.”

CT News: Is this popular uprising dynamic enough to affect change in the short term which transcends electoral politics? Can a socialist direct democracy emerge from this struggle?

Xavier: “The protests have created a sense of unity among a large chunk of the society, but at the same time there is not going to be a French Revolution over this… I think France is going to stay a parliamentary system for a long time. But, I do think that increasingly the people who are in parliament are going to become a lot more representative of the people who would want a direct democracy. Either that or the shit is going to hit the fan more and more… [Already] the country is averaging two riots a year… If the government does not become more responsive, the nature of the strikes and the protests are definitely going to become much more stiff. I think people are going to get to the point where they are really willing to let society grind to a halt.

“Fighting with the cops [alone] isn’t going to do that much. The politicians are still going to be behind their walls. But when their wallets really start hurting, that is when decisions are going to be made… That is already happening. A lot of [politicians] are pretty worried right now about the reaction of foreign investors because at the moment most of these politicians are ruled by the economy, and that is what they base their decisions on… If the people take back their economy, then those who are presently keeping them from it will definitely be out the window.”

CT News: “What lessons could groups in Vermont, such as the Workers’ Center and/or the AFL-CIO learn from the streets of France?”

Xavier: “Number one, that there is no harm in getting out there and telling people that you’re displeased about shit. Although compared to most of America I’d say Vermont is pretty good as far as that goes… Having been to enough states in the union, as far as the political consciousness of the average worker, it’s higher [in Vermont] then a lot of the rest of the country… As far as attitude goes… Vermonters have quite a bit in common with French workers.”

CT News: “Could you expand upon these commonalities?”

Xavier: “They both share a sense of solidarity. Of course other people have this too, but with Vermonters it goes very deep because they tend to know each other personally… Maybe it’s because of the small population…

“You know I was just in Brittany [a rural ethnically Gaelic province in the northwest], and Brittany is a lot like Vermont, both the good and bad. It is a place where many of the age-old industries, things like farming, are dying. The region is surviving because of its reputation… Like other small rural regions in France, Brittany is increasingly getting by, in part, through a growing tourism industry. But unlike in Vermont, this industry is owned by local people. What Vermont can take from France is that they should be careful to not have out-of-staters run its tourism for it and take the profits from it. The people that live there should reap the benefits.”

CT News: “In France, many aspects of different industries are owned by the state. Do you advocate that portions of Vermont’s economy, such as the ski resorts, be owned by the state and/or, for that matter, be run cooperatively by the workers?”

Xavier: “Ideally [the tourist industry in Vermont] should be owned by Vermonters… Seeing the way the state is economically set up it would be really sane and a nice thing if a large part of the revenue of the industry was something that went back to all Vermonters.”

CT News: “Finally, to get back on point, do you have any last thoughts on the situation in France?”

Xavier: “Again, if France needs anything right now its not more laws. There is already such a beaurocracy here and this law is just adding to it, which is exactly what people don’t want… If [the Prime Minister] had made a law that was a blank piece of paper, it couldn’t have been any stupider.”

CT News: “Mr. Massot, thank you for your time, and good luck in the streets.”
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