The protests across France against the Bill proposing changes in the Labour laws have been described as the biggest and longest protests since the French Revolution.
What we saw indicate that it could well be an understatement.
Over 1.2 million marched the streets of Paris on Tuesday (14 June 2016) which happens to be the birth anniversary of the iconic revolutionary Che Guevara.
Across France some 1.5 million workers are estimated to have hit the streets the same day making it the biggest protest.
Not all the stars of European football put together could bring such huge numbers from Europe and across the globe to France.
Workers do not need a Christiano Ronaldo, Thomas Muller or Arjen Robben to come on to the streets.
A call of different Trade Unions led by the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the largest of them was enough to see the spontaneous upsurge in France that has been growing in strength day after day.
The anger of the workers is against the new labour laws they call the “bosses law” that the French Government is imposing despite overwhelming opposition.
It is seen as antithetical to all the rights that the workers have gained through historic struggles, allow for arbitrarily firing workers and deepen job insecurity.
The Hollande Government is clearly rewriting French labour laws in line with the neo-liberal prescription.
It aims to create an atmosphere for companies in the name of “ease of doing business” to be able to hire and fire workers easily.
It also allows them to opt out of the French National Labour Protection rules without consulting the trade unions, increase working hours from the current legal work week of 35 hours to 48 hours and also up to 60 hours (12 hour days for temporary period) with an ‘exceptional authorisation’.
It also seeks to cut the overtime from present 25 percent to 10 percent only.
Even in the case of unjust dismissals a cap of 15 month pay has been made that is bound to rob the worker of all social security benefits.
The Government also seeks to arrogate to itself a Constitutional power to bypass even the Parliament to get the Bill passed.
It is an attack on more than a century of social rights in France.
Ironically the attack on workers’ rights has come on the pretext of employment generation, a front on which the Hollande government has fared miserably.
Inequalities are rising and over 6.5 million of unemployed job-seekers are jobless in France.
The workers led by the CGT demands the retraction of the Labour Bill and protection of workers’ rights with strengthened social security measures.
The workers are bracing themselves up for a long drawn battle against brutal State repression, a charade of disinformation spread by corporate media and threats and intimidation by the corporate bosses as well as attacks by the right wing forces.
The determination to fight it out was writ large on all who attended the protest Tuesday. The beleaguered Hollande Government is also facing the heat from within. Several leaders of the ruling party have also joined the increasing chorus of opposition to the “Code du Travail”.
Protests have been going on since 9th March and the Issue-Based Unity built by the workers has only led to each wave of protest being larger than what preceded it.
It is spreading to new cities and new trades.
A third of all gas stations in France are closed, five out of the eight oil refineries in France remain blockaded, the sanitation workers are on strike and so are pilots, tram drivers, workers in universities, government offices, transportation workers, electricity workers and other professional sections.
Even the workers at the iconic Eiffel Tower struck work on Tuesday in solidarity with the workers.
A fifth of the nuclear power output has also been cut by the striking workers leading to drastic fall in electricity supply.
Aviation and public transport system has also been affected.
It is reported that a few million signatures have been collected in an online petition against the changes proposed.
These are conservative government estimates but comrades at the CGT have different stories to tell.
No section is unaffected by the organised protest which the government has dubbed with utter contempt as “unrest caused by a handful of thugs”.
Penalties have been imposed on workers, especially of the CGT and no democratic debate is being engaged in either with the trade unions or even political parties.
The police also banned over two hundred people in the forefront of struggles from participating in the March.
It has unleashed brutal police attacks, tear-gassing, and arrests of leaders while increasingly talking of workers in the same vein as they do of terrorists.
The Government and right wing groups have fomented violence and brutally attacked protesters and we witnessed such attacks in Paris on Tuesday too. Workers remain determined and they know pretty well that protests are by nature disruptive and one cannot expect the calmness of an evening tea-party.
Over 225 delegates from 86 countries representing 123 organisations have been in Paris since 11th June, 2016 for the 4th International Conference of the Trade Union International of Workers in Agriculture, Food, Commerce, Textiles and Allied Industries that began on 13th June and will go on till 17th June.
It was but natural for them to join the French Workers’ Protest to express solidarity.
Messages of solidarity have been pouring in from workers and trade unions across the globe.
For a keen observer, Paris from day one came as a surprise.
It came across as a city of graffiti. In times of the European Football Championship soccer graffiti were mostly missing and it overwhelmingly were against capitalism.
The walls of Paris spoke the language of struggle, the language of revolution and workers’ freedom.
On 14th June at about 2 pm we left in buses to express solidarity with the French workers.
“Globalise the Struggle; Globalise Hope” was the call of proletarian internationalism and despite warnings that the protest could turn violent delegates attended with enthusiasm. The police had vast areas of Paris cordoned off.
It took longer for the buses to reach closer to the protest march. We marched hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with workers and peasants from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
As our delegates merged into the massive protest we soon realised we were just a speck in the ocean of protestors.
For a person involved in political activity for over two decades, I can say with certainty that I have never seen anything like this, youth, enthusiasm, colour and people’s support.
There were colourful flares, there were drums, and there were colourful costumes and red flags for a good measure. The red flags of CGT were ubiquitous and so were many with the hammer and sickle. We shouted slogans in French, Spanish, English and Hindi.
“So So So Solidarity!” and “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido” were most popular and comrades sang the “Internationale” in languages they knew. As we marched we found people from building tops and windows of houses and shops on both sides shouting out in solidarity and waving red flags.
Youth and women were present in large numbers. There was a young man on skates distributing pamphlets and there were the retired men and women who were out in support of the young workers.
It was the most disciplined, organised protest that the ruling classes termed as “hooligan” and it were these 1.2 million they called “handful of thugs” which a section of the French media religiously peddled.
But then truth cannot be forced to stand to attention and it stares in the faces of the ruling classes in all its glory.
We assembled close to the Jardin Du Luxemburg and marched through the Boulevard de Montparnasse and covered over five kms.
As we reached closer to the ‘Les Invalides’, a complex containing museums and monuments relating to military history of France, the French police used water-cannons and fired tear-gas in which hundreds of protestors were injured and some were bleeding profusely.
The French comrades led us back and we marched shouting slogans and we could see thousands still joining the protest.
We were blocked by a barricade where an elderly woman was having a face-off with the police in riot-gear.
We then took to the metro and all through the metro people joined in chorus with our slogans and all joined the Cuban comrades in singing the “Guantanamera” the popular song by Jose Marti.
Throats are hoarse and legs hurt, but we return inspired to face challenges and be a part of greater struggles in our lands.