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Issue 50, September 2000

French Welfare Warfare

ON 14 JUNE, the employers' organisation, MEDEF, and two trade union confederations, the CFDT and the Christian CFTC, took a huge step towards dismantling UNEDIC, France's unemployment benefit system.

At present, workers receive between 60% and 80% of their former wage on being made unemployed. Called 'assurance chômage', it actually comes out of workers' contributions, but the state's attitude has been that unemployment is a kind of social disease, not the worker's fault, and that benefit is an entitlement.

The MEDEF/CFDT agreement, PARE (Plan d'Aide au Retour à l'Emploi), would completely change this, overturning a reform won by the French working class 45 years ago. Unemployment benefit would become a 'generous gift', for a very short period and at a lower rate. The unemployed are effectively blamed for being out of work, in receipt of benefits only if there are no jobs available. There would be the right to refuse only two job offers from the national unemployment agency, even if these are low paid or with bad working conditions.

One aim of PARE is precisely to tackle areas where there is a shortage of workers, due to the recent growth in the economy (up by a projected 3.5%). The labour shortage is particularly evident in jobs typified by low wages and hard working conditions, for example construction and tourism. Some companies have a turnover of more than 60% a year and bosses are urgently looking for ways to force workers to accept bad working conditions.


Another objective is to make big cuts in the UNEDIC budget. The plan would save an estimated 75 billion francs (£7.5bn) in public spending over three years. The way the savings are to be distributed shows up MEDEF's agenda: 71 billion francs would be taken off the so-called 'bosses' contribution' (which, of course, really comes out of the workers' wages), while four billion francs would be used to finance PARE.

MEDEF was able to get most of the unions, except the CGT, close to the agreement. Although, in the end, Force Ouvrière (FO - Workers' Force) and CGC (a white-collar union), did not sign as well. Symptomatic of the shift to the right by the union leaderships is that they were all willing to discuss the bosses' proposals. That has never happened before in France.

The role of MEDEF in all this is also a significant development. Because the establishment political parties of the right are in disarray, MEDEF, the bosses' 'union', is now acting as a political force, trying to initiate policies in the interests of the French bourgeoisie. PARE is only part of their 'plan for social refoundation'. Coming from the bosses' mouths, we know what that means - the pursuit of neo-liberal policies attacking the working class.

After a long time of reflection the 'plural left' government (made up of the social democratic Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens) finally refused to endorse PARE. Behind this public declaration, however, the Jospin government has its own aims. It is not against the fundamental basis of PARE, but Jospin still wants to win elections -municipal elections are to be held in June 2001, for example, and a presidential contest looms in 2002.


By refusing the agreement the government hopes to put across a 'left profile', before becoming the third partner in the negotiations. Sécurité sociale is a non-governmental system. Up until 1967, three-quarters of the members on the administration councils were workers' delegates elected from union lists. The majority of these came from FO and CGT. The remaining 25% represented the bosses. Later it became a 50/50 system called 'paritarisme', still on the basis of workers' representatives facing bosses' representatives.

Through the June agreement, which left out three trade union confederations, MEDEF and the CFDT aimed to transform the paritarisme system by handing over the management of social care to the bosses and those unions which accept the bosses' plans.

But Jospin understands that he has to use many skilful tactics in order to implement such neo-liberal policies. The government is not sure that French society, and in particular the unions' rank and file, will accept this without some kind of 'left guarantee'. There is a developing fight back against the government's policies in the CGT and FO, as well as in a small minority of the CFDT, which also means organising against the government's backers in the union bureaucracies.

The relationship between the workers and bosses increasingly involves individual contracts, rather than traditional collective agreements. It has been the plural left government, above all, which has allowed such a change to take place. The Aubry law on the 35-hour week, for example, supposedly introducing a reduction in the working week, actually allows employers to worsen working conditions and pay through 'flexibility', wage freezes and so on.


The Jospin-MEDEF-CFDT triad has begun the destruction of the securité sociale. The next step will be pensions, a 'reform' which the conservative prime minister, Alain Juppé, failed to achieve in 1995. The government is being helped by the CGT and FO which always complain but rarely mobilise opposition. The French working class needs to organise a movement which goes further than that of 1995 to defeat this vicious neo-liberal attack on living standards.

Alex Rouillard

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