Letter from Paris – posted 5/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/15/2016
May 10, 2016.
I just had a chance to visit Paris for two weeks. What an awesome, friendly city! If there is a more beautiful, majestic city anywhere, I have not seen it. As has been written, Paris is a moveable feast. The art, the architecture, the history, the people, the food – so vital and alive.
Do not believe the hype scaring people into staying home and not travelling. Even in early May, the city is packed with tourists from everywhere. While security is heightened, Paris has quickly moved on from the terrorist attacks of last year.
I arrived in Paris right before May Day, international workers’ day. It is one of the biggest holidays of the year in France. There was a huge demonstration turnout of the French labor movement and all left wing political parties.
The left political tradition remains very vibrant in France. It appears to me that workers in France are more aware of their rights as well as being more class conscious than their American counterparts. The labor movement in France is certainly stronger than it is in the United States.
Interestingly, May Day actually originated in America. In the late 19th century American workers were fighting for an 8 hour work day. It was quite common for workers in America to be working 10 to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions. May Day started as a commemoration of the Haymarket affair in Chicago which was part of the effort for legal establishment of the 8 hour day.
This year, France is bitterly divided over a new proposed labor law reform. Much of the focus of the May Day demonstration was on the law, dubbed “El Khomri’s law”, after Myriam El Khomri, France’s Labor Minister. The Socialist government of President Francois Hollande initiated the reform, ostensibly to address high unemployment which stands at over 10%.
The reform has been met by furious opposition from the left. Much of the right wing and business community response seems favorably disposed to the law changes.
France’s labor code applies to all workers in the country so the labor law reform is hugely consequential.
The reform has multiple components. Among other provisions, it could lengthen the prescribed work week to 48 hours or even more. The French work week is currently 35 hours. As someone said to me this week, the French do not live to work – they work to live. The legislation considerably reduces the bonus paid to employees who work more than 35 hours in a week.
It also would allow employers greater flexibility in hiring and firing employees. In France, workers who lose their jobs without “just cause” are eligible to seek compensation. So if you are laid off, you can seek legal damages for unfair dismissal. Employers typically have to make a settlement based on your length of employment.
The new proposed law would lower the limit on money damages. Under the reform, workers would get less compensation.
The reform would also permit firms to negotiate “offensive agreements” at the company level. Such agreements could undercut existing standards on pay rates, working hours and other aspects of the labor contract. Previously, employers have not had the ability to do this as such changes were a violation of labor law.
The changes would be highly beneficial to business. French business has long complained that workers in France have too many rights. They believe French law is full of too rigid labor law restrictions and too many regulations.
The struggle over the labor law reform has prompted the creation of a new movement, Nuit Debout, which has been compared to our Occupy Wall Street. Nuit Debout means “arise at night”. For several months now, Nuit Debout activists have occupied Place de la Republique, a part of Paris, much like how Occupy activists camped out in New York City, Manchester and other cities.
Nuit Debout reflects an anger French young people feel at the French system as well as disillusionment with the dominant political parties. Nuit Debout demonstrations have popped up all over France. It remains unclear where Nuit Debout is heading but every night activists have been gathering in public assemblies at Place de la Republique and venting. Nuit Debout does want the bill on the labor law withdrawn.
I have been struck by historical parallels and convergences with things American in France. Our revolutions happened only 13 years apart, in 1776 and 1789. Thomas Jefferson helped Lafayette to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, which was a founding French revolutionary document. That Declaration recognized rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to repression. The document asserted that all citizens were equal.
Jefferson was actually in Paris in 1789. He was the United States Minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette sent the key of that prison to Washington to express his sense of indebtedness to the Americans. Jefferson felt the French Revolution would act to confirm the American Revolution.
Although it is not well known, in February 1794, the French government voted to abolish slavery. This was 69 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. France was the first government in history to abolish slavery.
France has had and still continues to have profound issues with racism. Napoleon reversed many of the racial gains made by the French revolutionaries. He reinstated racially discriminatory laws. Napoleon was supported by slavers and plantation owners.
The history of the struggle against slavery in France is quite fascinating. Going all the way back to the 1750’s, French lawyers fought the powerful colonial sugar lobby to establish rights for people of color. One hundred years before the infamous Dred Scott decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, French lawyers represented slaves taken to France from colonies. Through lawsuits, these slaves won freedom from their masters.
While people in the United States tend to associate the French Revolution with the Terror period, the French Revolution did open doors of emancipation for millions of enslaved people.
There are so many things to like about France. In closing, I will offer my personal list: public displays of affection, the Metro, Bordeaux red wine, universal health care coverage, love of dogs, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, apricot flan pie and bakeries to die for, the Eiffel Tower at night, TV that covers politics seriously, including international news, the photography of Lore Kruger as displayed at the Jewish Museum of History and Arts, escargot and sidewalk cafes.
Au revoir, Jon