French government backs down from ban on protest against labor law

Protests are to be held in cities across France today against the Socialist Party (PS) government's despised labor law, after the PS suddenly backed down from threats to ban today's protest in Paris. The unprecedented decision to threaten such a ban points to the advanced state of preparations for state repression of social opposition in the working class.

After Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande last week repeatedly threatened to ban further protests, the Paris police prefecture issued a brief statement yesterday morning declaring that the protest in Paris would be banned for security reasons.

Talks with the trade unions had failed, it stated, “as union representatives refused categorically to hold a static assembly and instead formulated alternative proposals of paths for protest marches.”

The statement continued: “After a careful examination, these alternative proposals did not allow for the necessary protection of persons and property, nor the necessary maximum mobilization of the security forces against the terror threat that is currently at a high level and imposes exceptional demands on the national soil. Under these conditions, the prefect of police sees no option besides banning the protests.”

The significance of the prefecture's position was clear. As the government has given no indication that it believes the terror threat from Islamist networks trained as part of NATO's imperialist wars in Libya and Syria would die down, the prefecture was effectively arguing that social protests in Paris would be banned for an entire period. Fundamental, constitutionally protected democratic rights to strike and protest were to be voided with a few strokes of a pen in the Paris prefecture.

The position manifestly had the support of the entire top leadership of the PS government. At a press conference, its spokesman, Stéphane Le Foll, criticized journalists who were asking about Valls' role in pushing for the banning of the protest.

“The little game where you let people think that a decision was taken inside the executive by the prime minister falsifies the issue,” Le Foll said. “Decisions are taken in a collective manner, and the police prefecture tries to balance between the right to protest and the risks that are involved.”

Nonetheless, while Le Foll was speaking, the leaders of the Stalinist General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the Workers Force (FO) unions were demanding an emergency meeting with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. At this meeting, they reportedly warned Cazeneuve that, even if the protest were banned, it would be impossible to prevent masses of people from showing up to protest and assembling in a large number of smaller illegal protest gatherings. Attacking and dispersing such rallies would require even more policemen than policing one large protest.

As CGT and FO officials spoke to Cazeneuve, online petitions were circulating in which people declared that they would defy any ban and participate in tomorrow's protest. One petition posted on change.org gathered nearly 150,000 signatures over the course of the day.

At 12:45 PM, after the meeting with Cazeneuve, CGT General Secretary Philippe Martinez and FO leader Jean-Claude Mailly held an unusual joint press conference together with other union officials. Directly contradicting the police prefecture and Le Foll, they announced that Cazeneuve had authorized a protest, mapped out along a short, circular route, starting and finishing at Bastille Square, along which protesters would be authorized to march.

Though the purpose of this decision was clearly to box the protesters in and set up the “static assembly” that the prefecture had originally wanted, Martinez and Mailly hailed this decision as “a victory for the unions and for democracy.”

Cazeneuve gave a press conference an hour later to confirm that the circular march would not be banned. At the same time, he threatened the demonstrators, declaring, “Nothing should get out of control, no violence will be tolerated.”

Press commentators soon began speculating as to whether this humiliating climb-down meant a loss of face for Valls, after his calls for banning protests were disavowed by Hollande and Cazeneuve. In fact, the Socialist Party’s decision to ban the protest and its subsequent abrupt reversal have exposed the party’s escalating desperation in the face of mass working-class opposition, and its determination to trample on basic democratic rights if this will enable it to impose its program of social attacks.

It once again made clear that the state of emergency imposed by the PS after the November 13 terror attacks in Paris is directed not against terrorists, but against the working class and its democratic rights. While the PS is maneuvering to impose an ever more nakedly antidemocratic regime, the social force that is emerging as the main defender of and social constituency for democratic rights is the working class.

It also exposes pseudo-left parties such as the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) and the Left Front (FdG) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who called for a Hollande vote in the 2012 elections and claimed that protests could be organized to pressure the PS to adopt left-wing policies. In fact, the NPA and FdG mounted no significant protest action until mass discontent erupted among youth and workers this year against the PS labor law. And the PS has responded to protests not by shifting to the left, but by carrying out ever more brutal repression.

While the PS banned protests by youth groups and Muslim and Palestinian organizations against the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2014, its current threat to ban a trade union protest on social issues is unprecedented.

If the ban had been maintained, it would have been the first time a union protest was banned since Paris prefect and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon banned an anti-Algerian war protest called by the Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF) and the CGT on February 8, 1962. On that day, Paris police attacked protesters who defied the ban, leading to the death of nine protesters at the Charonne metro station. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to attend their funeral in one of the major demonstrations of mass opposition to the Algerian war.

Given this history, it is clear that yesterday's announcement of a protest ban by the police prefecture, initially backed by the Interior Ministry, is a threat to escalate the already brutal repression of the three-month-old protest movement against the Socialist Party’s regressive labor law.