Death and teaching in Paris

Après les angoisses du début d’année
T’as travaillé trois mois, toujours pas payée
Et les heures supprimées, pas rémunérées
T’auras pas de contrat, c’est l’Etat
N’attends pas le syndicat, il est pas là
Gare à toi, sois toujours sympa
C’est le règne de l’arbitraire, du pouvoir discrétionnaire
Si ça te plaît pas, tu peux rentrer chez ta mère
Tu comprends pas, ouvre le dictionnaire, t’es vacataire;

Refrain : Tu ne peux rien changer
Si tu protestes, tu te fais virer
Des bottes, tu devras lécher[
– Song of the Vacataire en colère from le Blog de Carmen

After the anxieties of the new academic year
You’ve worked three months, still not paid
And hours dropped, never remunerated
You will not have a contract, it’s the state
Do not wait for the union, it’s not there
Watch yourself, always be nice
It’s the reign of arbitrariness, discretionary power
If you do not like it, go back to your mother’s house
If you do not understand, open the dictionary, you’re a temporary worker

Chorus: You can not change anything
If you protest, you get fired
Boots, you’ll have to lick them.
(Author’s translation)

I was preparing to leave my apartment, to make the usual commute to teach courses at a private university on the outskirts of Paris, when a text message appeared on my phone.  The message was brief.  In French, it merely said a grave incident had occurred on campus involving a professor. All classes were canceled and the campus was closed. I immediately wondered if someone I knew was hurt.  No other messages followed for the rest of the day and I was unable to reach anyone in my department by phone.  Googling the name of the school, it slowly became evident from news sources that one of my colleagues had been stabbed by a former student.  As the evening wore on, more details were made available on news sites and I realised who the victim was.  But it wasn’t until late at night that an official email was sent to university faculty about the tragedy. One of our colleagues, a fellow English professor, had been brutally murdered on the steps of the school by a former student who had failed his courses in 2017. In the following paragraph, we were informed that our classes would resume in the morning. 

There was no day of mourning. Grief counselors were brought on campus for several days and a free hotline was set up for students and faculty to call in for a period of two weeks.  At the end of the term, the university hosted an evening memorial to honor the life of the slain professor and his dedicated service to the institution where he taught for over two decades.  (He had planned to retire at the end of the academic year).  He was a beloved teacher and hundreds of students, faculty and staff were present to pay their respects.   But there was no special meeting scheduled for those of us in the Languages Department who knew him – some people had worked with him for many years and were friends as well as colleagues – nor were assurances made that additional security would be put in place.  We emailed one another in the days following his death, sharing our concerns and knowledge of the circumstances of our colleague’s death. The former student had blamed the English faculty for his academic failure, and targeted one of us.  Some of us confessed we were afraid to be alone in an elevator with students.  Others couldn’t sleep, had difficulty walking past the site of the murder and felt physically ill.  Everyone was distressed, sad or fearful but felt compelled for practical reasons to continue to work as we all lack paid personal or sick leave.  Looking back at this, it’s difficult to convey in words my shock over what happened as well as the school’s callous handling of it.

‘La galère du vacataire’

I teach at three schools in the Paris metro region as an adjunct professor – what’s called a ‘vacataire’ or ‘chargé d’enseignement’ in French vernacular.[ii] My students number 200 – although this fluctuates – and I teach about six courses annually – usually with several sections for each course and between 20 to 40 students in each section. My salary ranges from 39 to 45 euros an hour before taxes.  After taxes, I earn less than 10,000 euros a year.  If I take a day off because my child is ill, I’m not paid.  I’m only remunerated for the time I’m in the classroom, teaching.  This does not include course design and preparation, grading, faculty meetings, nor do I receive transportation subsidies from the schools where I teach. When I asked for a raise last year at one school, after three years of teaching there, I was told that ‘vacataire’ salaries are set by the university administration and, I learned, if the university is public, by the Minister of National Education.  The majority of adjunct faculty in France, like me, earn approximately the same hourly wage as twenty years ago, a rate set by the government (41 euros/hour).  When our salaries are averaged out to include all the unpaid work we do, we make less than the national minimum wage (SMIC).  

On structural violence

It’s a common misperception that there are strong labor protections in France; although this is shifting with the advent of the ‘yellow vest’ movement in November 2018.  Likewise, when we think of violence in schools or on university campuses, the United States comes to mind first, usually not European countries.  

In 2019, the majority of university professors in North America are part-time adjuncts; this is on trend in Europe as well.  While France still has a higher ratio of tenured professors [‘maîtres de conférences’] to adjuncts – slightly more than half compared to the US where about 75% of faculty are contingent – these posts are increasingly replaced by part-time adjuncts as people retire.  Adjunct professors in France work without permanent contracts – and many of us work with no contract at all – or benefits (including access to unemployment insurance, maternity and sick leave, and paid holidays).  Due to our status as ‘vacataires’, we are also often limited in the number of hours we can teach at one institution (96 hours per annum) so most of us teach at three or even four schools.  We are routinely informed weeks or even mere days before the academic term begins whether courses and class schedules have been confirmed, changed or canceled; the number of students in classrooms increases each year; we wait months – sometimes until the following summer – to be paid; and endure persistently chaotic work environments.  All of these examples constitute forms of structural violence.

‘Low-paid seasonal workers with Ph.D.s’

There have been a number of excellent articles and books published recently on the crisis of education in North America and the United Kingdom, extending from primary schools to university.  Based on my own experiences as a teacher and a mother in France, the crisis extends to Europe where austerity measures slash budgets for public education.  The crisis is – at least in part – an outcome of neoliberalism which imposes ‘free market’ models on schools, commodifying education, seeking ‘returns’ at the lowest possible cost, and transforms teachers – with advanced degrees – into temporary, low-paid labourers. 

I have no hopeful solutions with which to conclude.  In France, adjunct professors don’t have union representation – which contributes to our situation.  In recent years, adjuncts at a number of public universities across the country have protested, demanding better work conditions, permanent contracts and regular paychecks, including at public universities in Paris, Lille, Nantes, Lyon and Poitiers.  As I write this, we enter ‘Act 22’ of the ‘yellow vest’ protests for economic justice. Primary and secondary school teachers are protesting and striking regularly against draconian changes to the labor laws, and a women’s strike was held on 8 March for equal pay (for the same work as men).  It’s unclear if these actions will stop or even slow the neoliberal onslaught.

I’m saddened by the death of my colleague – someone I knew for a short three months but whose murder still haunts me.  In my view, it’s crucial to emphasise the continuum between forms of structural violence which culminate in bursts of direct violence.  Our struggles against different forms of structural violence must also be linked. Neoliberal reforms, including the privatisation of public goods like education, transportation, infrastructure, and healthcare, that are being rammed down our throats in France, impact all of us whether we are primary school teachers, students, university adjuncts, railway workers, taxi drivers or airplane pilots.  Organising, in (and outside of) unions, striking, refusing to cooperate in mass demonstrations of civil disobedience, appear to be our most effective and direct path, for now, toward a recognition of our collective demands. 


(Photo Credit: l’Humanité)

France’s protest over a gas tax takes on new meaning

Europe has been thrown into disarray for the past several weeks. In France, the Yellow Vests Protests, at first protesting their objection to Macron’s gas tax– a step in the right direction to combat climate change – have now risen to address the needs of poor working-class families, including calls for higher wages, lower taxes, better pensions and easier university entry requirements. While the protests may be co-opted by far-right leaders, especially at the behest of climate-change deniers in large corporations that are to blame for CO2 emissions, Macron’s austerity measures laid the foundation for the Yellow Vests. The gas tax was that straw that broke the camel’s back.

President Macron, a centrist millionaire who has no understanding of the struggles of the working class in France, came into power — thankfully ousting far-right candidate Marie La Pen —  “vowing to face down protestors and drive through long-postponed economic reforms.” His policy reforms were the austerity measures that are sweeping across the globe as capitalist elites consolidate power and wealth and working-class families pay the price. 

In his 18 months in office, Macron has reduced the power of the unions in workplace relations, ending the special benefits enjoyed by railway workers, and made it easier for companies to hire and fire staff. He ended the wealth tax on all assets from property — a whopping 70% cut in the tax for France’s millionaires: “It was meant to boost investment in the economy, but it was seen by many poorer voters as further proof that this former banker-turned-president was still primarily a friend of business, not of the squeezed working and middle class.” The biggest winners of the tax cut has been the richest 1% in France. 

The protests have largely moved hard-left, as demonstrators demand more funding for social programs. It remains to be seen whether far-right leaders will capitalize on the protests for their own gain. Given how close La Pen was to winning in the previous election, it remains to be seen if the shift of economic blame would push on La Pen’s anti-migrant and racist undertones. For now, however, it seems that the anger is at the political elite, who have largely ignored the sufferings of the working-class.

What does this mean for climate change? Attempting to lower CO2 emissions is essential in combating the damaging effects of the planet’s rising temperatures. At the same time, it is necessary that we understand the ways in which capitalism is the driving force of the rise of carbon emissions. The report issued by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change points to the rectification that “requires transforming the world economy within just a few years … Capitalism’s legacy is climate change. It’s logically impossible to claim that capitalism is a sustainable economic system and that climate change is real. Asserting both is the definition of trying to have your cake and eat it too. There is no debate as to who is to blame for climate change. Our economic masters have chosen to accumulate as much money as possibly while spending a sizable chunk on propaganda telling you that the certainty scientists have on this topic is actually just some big liberal hoax perpetrated by Al Gore.” 

The fight for the working-class and for the environment are inherently linked — alongside women’s demand for equality, because women will be damaged the worst by the climate change. The struggles for working class power, women’s power and the environment together require a struggle to end the economic system of capitalism before it consumes all the world’s resources and destroys the earth that we need to survive. Macron’s gas tax will not effectively change the problem. The forces of corporations that destroy the environment are the true culprit of climate change. We must demand and force their end, because if the world is irreparably damaged, if we are all on this sinking ship together, then the capitalists had best worry, not about their bottom line but rather the cliff the global proletariat will through them off of. A specter haunts the environment … 

The impact of Macron’s proposed budget on working people

(Image Credit: Femmes en Lutte 93) (Infographic Credit: BBC)

France contracts the epidemic of “tough on immigration” laws

Some issues come back to the scene of “democratic” states at the time of neoliberal battles. In this time of globalization, there is a disparity of sanctions between movements of vulture capital and movements of people, themselves often victims of the economics of globalization.  While no one of late has offered a bill against vulture venture capital, in France, the Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb has offered Parliament a new bill on asylum and immigration, nicknamed the law of shame.  Fitting into the European Union eagerness to crack down on the rights of people in exile, the bill aims to cut down the appeal time for asylum seekers as well as increase the time in immigration detention center. With an eye to society-market language, the bill promises “controlled immigration, effective asylum rights, and successful integration”.

While the Minister of the Interior claims the bill is balanced, NGOs involved in immigration services, such as la Cimade, warn of the danger of increasing levels of dehumanization with a law that treats everyone reaching France with suspicion. The Minister responds, repeatedly, that France cannot receive all the misery of the world. Remember the Geneva Convention? The Geneva Convention defines rights for refugees, not rights for countries to get rid of refugees.  This “controlled immigration”  bill has already passed the first chamber.

The bill doubles the maximum number of days spent in detention center from 45 to 90 days. Ostensibly, that gives the authorities more time to find solutions other than allowing the person in exile to stay in France, in other words, reaching an agreement with the refugee’s original country about the possibility for return.

According to Mireille Delmas-Marty, French law scholar and professor, before the end of the 1970s there was no separate notion of immigration, and no detention center existed for administrative detention, but, over time, the confusion between immigration, being illegal and delinquency has changed with changes in the law. In 1980 the “Bonnet Bill” marked the beginning of the criminalization of immigration. The bill allowed 7 days of administrative detention under specific conditions. France’s Supreme Court ruled that was too long and censured the bill. In 2018, 90 days is described as a reasonable length of time behind bars for non-criminal people. “Administrative” incarceration for people who are accused of nothing other than traveling without documentation should be challenged in the context of a record number of incarcerations in French prisons with 70,367 behind bars, 21 000 awaiting trial, and 120% occupation rate.

French civil society has resisted the principle of administrative detention on immigration issues. Recently, parents, students and teachers united to demand and obtain the liberation of the father of two high school students from Kosovo who was placed in administrative detention for his immigration status. Such acts of resistance have occurred repeatedly.

Collomb’s bill accelerates asylum procedures so people will have to apply for asylum within 90 days instead of the current 120 days. If their application is denied, they will have 15 days instead of 30 to appeal. The asylum process is already extremely difficult to maneuver for most people in need. Many NGOs, such as the Primo Levy Center, describe the process as too fast and shallow to be fair. Right now, judges and employees of the court of appeal for refugees and the immigration lawyers’ guild are on strike, denouncing the impossibility of treating everyone given the lack of resources.

The bill contained some progressive elements such as a better protection for women victim of sexual mutilations, stateless people, reunification with their family for minors traveling alone, and removing countries denying rights to homosexuals from the list of safe countries.  But the debate in Parliament revealed a larger resistance as the positive sections didn’t make up for the overall lack of protection for the dignity of people in exile. Many MPs from the majority opposed the bill and denounced the absence of necessary altruism and benevolence. With the bill, France is neither a land of integration nor of hospitality. Christiane Taubira remarked that the bill catered to a certain sector of French voters rather than taking into account the human reality of the migrations of our time.

Can numbers change the suspicious side of the law of shame on immigration? At a recent conference on migration, refugees, and exile, French historian Patrick Boucheron argued that more statistics are necessary to understand the human reality of today’s migrations. The world is made of 244 million migrants, with 100 million forced to migrate, 21 million refugees under the status of the Geneva Convention, and 3 million migrating to developed countries. The 10 countries that receive over 50 % of people migrating make up 2 % of the world’s GDP. Boucheron explained that in a time of capitalist crisis accompanied by environmental crisis, hospitality becomes a key political question.

What will transform the vision and understanding of people who are migrating from the perspective of the people who migrated before them?  President Emmanuel Macron’s nickname is Jupiter, a mythological god that reigned over other gods. Jupiter was also the god of hospitality. We should remind the young President of France of that. How can people and the government transform distrust into trust?  What will make a politics of hospitality possible?

 

(Photo Credit 1, 2: La Cimade)

Paris chambermaids strike against the cleaning inequalities of the neoliberal state

In Paris the chambermaids of the Holiday inn of Clichy in the Northern district of Paris are striking in a struggle for dignity in the face of increasing dehumanization of service workers. They have decried their work conditions with the company Héméra that contract their work to the Holiday Inn. The workers went on strike after they realized that some of their colleagues had been redirected to another hotel far away, and that workloads had increased while wages stagnated. This is part of a general workers’ response to mounting inequality.

Recently, inequality has resurfaced as a major issue in “democratic” as well as in non-democratic nations. Last week, the Word Inequality Report brought to light a multilayer study of the global rise in inequality. Although Europe has seen a slower increase of inequality, compared to the rest of the world, the increase is still significant and even more troublesome since the European model supposedly relied on a system of protections against inequality.

Employment deregulation and privatization have been touted as a rational means to resist competition in Western Europe.  In the process of privatizing services, cleaners who were employed by hotels or public services are now generally employed by service companies that contract their work. This process lowers the conditions of employment. Service provider companies have multiplied, fragmenting the gained negotiating power of workers and unions. The majority of the people thus employed are women as are 70% of the poor in the world.

Within Europe, until recently France had retained some of the best labor protections, but in recent years the labor code has been reshaped under the pretext that it was too complicated. Most recently, President Macron struck the final blow, redefining labor protection.

At the Holiday Inn in Clichy, the chambermaids said, “NO!”. Blandine Laurenjolla, a chambermaid at the Holiday Inn in Clichy with 10 years seniority, was being forced to transfer to a hotel a few hours away from her home. She is a mother of four, the youngest is only 11 months old. When she complained that she would have to leave her home every day at 4 AM, she was told that with young children she should stay home. In total 2 women were forced to transfer. These transfers and the constant pressure of Héméra company on their domestic workers was such that the strike was voted and supported by a large movement of solidarity. Even some customers of the hotel showed their support.

Thus far, Héméra and the Holiday Inn have turned a blind eye to the demand for dignity and respect for work. Additionally, the workers face constant police pressure, as a chambermaid told us: “I am a chambermaid, we are picketing and demonstrating every day. The management ignores us they send the police every day.” The district’s congresswoman has said that they were not the most visible and “important” personnel of the Hotel, not the people who count. Language opposing people who count to people who are invisible has increased. This language signifies inequality.

The struggle against invisibility is constant in the cleaning service as this crucial work is in patriarchy traditionally attributed to women.

The contracted cleaners of 75 train stations of the northern “transilien” Paris railroad network went on strike after their company was sold to another service provider company in November. The companies merge, sale and buy and the workers’lives are negotiated to a lower grade. After 44 days of strike, the movement succeeded in obtaining their affiliation to the railroad collective agreement with an increase in their bonuses, a guarantee of not being transferred without their agreement and other small advantages.

This strike was a success because the train stations were visibly dirty and dirtier every day. The work of the cleaners was visible in the absence of it. Then, the public train service was more willing to push for a better ending than the warped service businesses left alone.

These movements of resistance by the invisible contracted women workers reminds us of the importance of solidarity. Contracting work is a process key in transferring public power and money into private hands that practice individualism with no concern for a sense of human dignity. The world has never been so rich and the public wealth never so low. That is the source of a human catastrophe.

 

(Photo Credit: Julien Jaulin / Hanslucas / Humanité)

Around the world, domestic workers demand decent, living wage and work conditions NOW!

Across the globe, domestic workers are struggling and organizing for decent work conditions, a living wage, respect and dignity. In 2011, the International Labour Organization passed C189, Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers. In 2013, the Convention went into effect. As of now, 24 countries have ratified the Convention. And yet … Yesterday, domestic workers in Tamil Nadu, in India, gathered to demand a living wage and legally enforced protections. Yesterday, in Mexico, the ILO reported that 1% of domestic workers in Mexico have any kind of social security. Yesterday, a report from England argued that the way to end exploitation of migrant workers, and in particular domestic workers, is a fair and living wage. Today, an article in South Africa argued that Black women domestic workers bear the brunt of “persistent inequality”. Today, an article in France argued that economic indicators systematically exclude “domestic labor” and so exclude women. What’s going here? In a word, inequality. Women bear the brunt of urban, national, regional and global inequality, and domestic workers sit in the dead center of the maelstrom.

Today, the inaugural World Inequality Report was issued. Since 1980, income inequality has increased almost everywhere, but the United States has led the way to astronomic, and catastrophic, income inequality. In the 1980s, inequality in western Europe and the United States was more or less the same. At that time, the top 1% of adults earned about 10% of national income in both western Europe and the United States. Today in western Europe, the top 1% of adults earns 12% of the national income. In the United States, the top 1% earns 20% of the national income. It gets worse. In Europe, economic growth has been generally the same at all levels. In the United States, the top half has been growing, while the bottom half, 117 million adults, has seen no income growth.

According to the report, the United States “experiment” has led the a global economic, and state, capture: “The global top 1% earners has captured twice as much of that growth as the 50% poorest individuals …. The top 1% richest individuals in the world captured twice as much growth as the bottom 50% individuals since 1980.” The authors note, “The global middle class (which contains all of the poorest 90% income groups in the EU and the United States) has been squeezed.”

Call it global wealth – state capture relies on expanding “opportunities” for the global poor – particularly in countries like China, India, and Brazil – while squeezing the global middle class, and that’s where domestic workers come in. Paid domestic labor has been one of the fastest growing global labor sectors for the past four decades. Women have entered the paid labor force thanks to other women who have tended to the household work. After its preamble, the ILO C189 opens, “Recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries …”

That language was formally accepted in 2011. Six years later, domestic workers are still waiting, and struggling, for that recognition. In Mexico, groups are organizing to include domestic workers into Social Security programs as well as to ensure that employers pay the end of year bonus that all decent, and not so decent, employers in Mexico pay. In India, domestic workers are marching and demanding protections as well as a living wage. Domestic workers are women workers are workers, period. Today’s Inequality Report reminds us that the extraordinary wealth of those at the very top has been ripped from the collective labor and individual bodies of domestic workers. Structured, programmatic ever widening inequality, at the national and global level, begins and ends with the hyper-exploitation of domestic workers, through employers’ actions and State inaction. Who built today’s version of the seven gates of Thebes? Domestic workers. It’s past time to pay the piper. NOW is the time!

(Photo Credit: El Sie7e de Chiapas)

For women migrants and refugees, justice instead of policing!

 


“They are conscious of their impending death, still they would rather float out to sea. That makes one ponder the conditions of life for many in the world,” a woman rescuer on the Aquarius told me. The Aquarius is one of the rare vessels still rescuing people on the border of the territorial waters of Libya. The women, men, and children who embarked on flimsy dinghies after having been dispossessed by all the agents of this drama finally land in Europe. The reasons of the conditions that made them flee are not discussed; what is discussed is constraining the flow they form and managing those people. Although they experienced many levels of torture, they still must “convince the authorities” of their need for protection.

In 1951 in Geneva, the international community agreed on a convention on the protection of refugees. They decided that asylum should be granted to people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country. It was the time of post WWII international conventions, when the narrative was “never again.” The convention affirms that no one should be expelled against her or his will to a territory where she or he fears threats to life or freedom.

The main industrial countries have reinterpreted the convention they ratified. As Patrick Young, an attorney for the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), told us, in the United States this is the worst period for immigrants in his lifetime and he has been working in immigration for decades. He also told us that they had seen no refugees coming since the election.

The European governments have been designing policies to close their borders to refugees and migrants. In countries previously known to welcome migrants – such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Hungary – anti-immigrant parties have reached unprecedented levels of representation. As a result, those countries have aligned their immigration policies with the more conservative countries. In 2015, the Swedish population grew by an additional 1.6 %, thanks largely to the arrival of 163 000 refugees. As elsewhere, Sweden’s discourse of public debt and unemployment rates has included immigrants as an aggravating factor. This triggered horribly restrictive asylum policies, placing Sweden at the bottom of the 32 European countries. Meanwhile, the Schengen free circulation agreement in EU countries has fallen apart. Now the Swedish border patrol requires passport or photo IDs, even at the iconic Øresund Bridge border between Copenhagen and Malmö.

While asylum policies vary from country to country, they have all been tightened, especially in countries where these policies had been rather generous. Most recently, the newly elected French President announced that he wanted to reform France’s asylum process. He claimed this would provide a more human and just process and at the same time insisted on the importance of managing the problem of smugglers as well as discouraging people from trying to reach Europe.

While President Macron spoke fine words about humanizing French asylum policies, his Interior Minister was showing a “tough on immigration” face. France has not been very welcoming to asylum seekers and the application of its asylum policies does not respect the notion of protection that the Geneva Convention commands.

The Paris-based Primo Levi Center assists women, men, and children who have faced political violence, rape, torture, humiliation, persecution. They provide long term treatments to their patients. Typically, their patients are referred to them up to 3 years after having drifted onto the coast of Europe. Despite having been tortured, 50 % of their patients saw their asylum applications rejected in the first round. The Center published a report that identified the breaches in the process that should have provided protection. They made strong recommendations, among them a reform of Ofpra, the office in charge of first addressing asylum applications, demanding that the office be put under the aegis of the Ministry of Justice as opposed to the current Ministry of the Interior. They demanded justice instead of policing.

The report identified variances of results between the different judges in charge of reviewing the cases and granting asylum, showing that judges’ biases about migrants are a determining factor. In the current climate of “de-welcoming” refugees, refugees are often seen as liars who mislead the officers recording their testimony. This perception obscures the reality of torture that the asylum seeker has lived through. Torture excludes people. Once in Europe the torture continues as the refugees continued to be excluded. As one of the Primo Levi’s patients explained, “How do you make them believe that I was forced to eat parts of a fetus pulled out of the body of a woman who had been executed in front of me by a soldier.” Half of the refugees/migrants are women, who have been raped, abused during their trip, used as weapon of war and then face gender inequality when applying for asylum.

There is no time in these interviews to recognize the psychological trauma of the victims of torture. Now, the President’s reform will accelerate that process. If the improvement of protection rate observed in 2016 with an increase of 35 % compared to 2015 should continue, acceleration of the process shouldn’t mean officers are obsessed with identifying the good refugee from the fake refugee, essentially the economic refugee. Instead, they should give refugees the benefit of the doubt.

The paradigm must change, as determined defender of human rights Giusi Nicollini, Mayor of Lampedusa, declared when she received the Simone de Beauvoir Award, “The people who fled violence defied death, they are a modern example of heroism.” She identified the situation of migrants/refugees to be the new apartheid, a new holocaust. Giusi Nicollini lost her seat in the last election to someone who campaigned on tougher measures toward refugees. The role of conventions and their legality must be reinforced. We must switch the rationale from the balance of power to the balance of justice.

 

(Photo Credit: Yahoo / AFP / Carlo Hermann)

Reform of the labor code in France threatens increased precarity for women


In France, a tumultuous election season has brought to power a new president Emmanuel Macron and a new majority in the parliament from his new party. During his campaign, he presented himself to be neither from the left nor for the right therefore creating the image of the impartial candidate the best capable to reform the country and restore the place of France as a competitive and innovative country. In the communication era, language is everything. The master words were innovation and liberation. He wanted to place the beginning of his presidency under the aegis of decisiveness to mark his difference with his predecessor Francois Hollande accused of being a weak president. As Ministers of the Economy and Labor, respectively, Emmanuel Macron and Myriam El Khomri passed the first bills that changed the balance of power between unions and employers in France.

France has a labor code in which various labor protections negotiated by workers and gained since its inception in 1910 have been registered as laws. Over the past decades the labor code has been presented, especially by the MEDEF (the French Employer Federation), as a heavy book getting heavier making it proportionally responsible for a “heavy” unemployment rate. Although some simplifications of the code could be necessary, the direct link between unemployment and the labor code has never been established. Nonetheless, Emmanuel Macron made reform of the labor code one of his priorities, a way “to liberate France’s energies.” Did his election give him a clear mandate for such drastic action? No, especially since many voted for him in the second round of the election to bar the extreme right wing candidate, Marine Le Pen, from becoming president.

The question of high unemployment rate remained central to the presidential campaign. The idea that the employers were afraid to hire because it was too difficult to fire employees because of the labor code was constantly hammered. More recently, the language of flexibility in labor laws has been associated with the notion of labor well-being. Once again the variable of adjustment in profit making is labor.

We should question the position of women’s employment as it is a magnifier of the inequalities in the distribution of work in a society.

Before the summer a bill was passed to allow this reform to be enacted by decrees. Then, the government of Edouard Philippe (Macron’s Prime Minister) with his Minister of Labor and Unemployment, Muriel Pénicaud, started a three-months-negotiation process with every union including the French Employer Federation MEDEF. Although unions appreciated the process, some were wary at the start that the liberal imprint of this government will force negative transformations of the labor code. The general secretary of Force Ouvrière, (Workers’ Force), who had opposed the previous labor law of the previous government noticed that this government had a real desire to negotiate with the unions. Was it a clever move to lower resistance or a sincere desire for dialogue? In all these negotiations, women’s employment conditions were not taken directly into account.

Because France has a high rate of women fully employed compared to neighboring countries that have moved to more partial time work system, will this reform level down women’s employment? This reform claims to bring flexi-security to the labor market, will it fulfill the promise of the second term for women workers?

In the 1990s, when Germany underwent an even more radical reform of its labor laws, putting “business first” switched most of the burden of social contributions to the employees as opposed to the employers.  The official justification was to reduce the unemployment rate. Germany did that with the creation of 4 million jobs but without changing the number of hours worked, 58 billion hours. The reform created “minijobs”, part time work with lower wages and no social protection. We have seen this in the United States. As a result, women have been over-represented in these jobs, increasing gendered precarity in Germany. In contract, France has fewer working poor than Germany today, while Germany boasts one of the highest pay gaps between women and men is Europe today.

French officials claim that they will not implement exactly the same measures as in Germany, but the extension of the use of fixed-term contracts as opposed to permanent contracts belongs to the same thinking. Women are overrepresented in this type of contracts. This means the possible renegotiation of maternity leave, days off for sick children, work conditions for pregnant women, to name but a few.

The reform with its clear commitment to put “business first” rejects the Nordic model which insists on “fair” social and gendered negotiations. When choices have to be made between profit making and the well-being of women employees, women lose.

At the same time, the reform threatens to reduce the importance of currently functioning committees created to protect women’s rights against gender disparity and harassment in the workplace. The reform cuts the financing of the councils that monitor the progress made by companies in reducing inequalities between women and men.  Additionally, the cap in the labor court put on compensation for illegal layoffs undermines the power of the labor court to protect workers against abusive employers’ behaviors.

Fifty feminist organizations called on their members to join the September 12th mass demonstrations of against the labor code reforms. They emphasized that there have been three deceptive actions from this government for women’s rights. First candidate Macron promised to keep a full Minister of Women’s Rights in his administration with the same level of budget as before. The Minister has been downsized to a State Secretariat. Second the Minister budget was cut by 27%. The third deception is a “labor code reform” that threaten increased precarity for women who are already make up the majority of those employed in lower wage jobs. They demand that the president Macron respects his engagement toward women’s rights.

 

(Photo Credit 1; Le Monde) (Photo Credit 2: L’Humanité / Miguel Medina / AFP)

Hats off Madame Simone Veil!

In France, feminists and humanists are mourning Simone Veil, the emblematic woman who in 1975 presented and defended her abortion bill in the almost exclusively masculine French parliament.

She has been perceived as a rebel and she would say that she never accepted that women had restrictive rights. As a young magistrate in charge of prisons from 1957 to 1964, she changed the extremely repressive conditions of women in prison. During the Algerian War, she acted for the rights of Algerian political prisoners putting in place a strategy to curtail the execution of male Algerian prisoners on death row. Meanwhile she also worked to stop the mistreatment of Algerian female political prisoners, regrouping them in a special unit under far better conditions where they were able to pursue their education.

Simone Veil knew what being in prison meant, having been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau when she was 16 along with one of her sisters and her mother, who died in 1945 from exhaustion and typhus after they had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She survived the worst with an extreme desire to salute and respect life. She always said that she kept the memory of her inspiring mother at her side always, especially in her fight for the respect of women’s and human rights.

Among her other achievements at her various positions in the French administration was the recognition of dual parental control and family legal matters, rights for single mothers and their children, and adoption rights for women.

In 1974 Simone Veil became the first female full minister in a French government. The previous attempt to have women in an administration occurred during Leon Blum’s Front Populaire government in 1936 with 3 women nominated “sous secretaire d’etat” (Undersecretary of State). At the time women did not have the right to vote in France.

Simone Veil’s first legislation was to have contraception recognized in the French Health care system, removing the financial burden of contraception.

The event that made her feminist stand highly visible was “la loi Veil”, the bill to legalize abortion in France, that passed on January 17, 1975. Remarkably, she was in a center right government. The bill was fully supported by the left but not by the members of her own party and she needed some of their votes to pass it.

The bill itself was cautious and called for improvement but it represented a necessary start. France had some of the most restrictive laws for women with the Code Napoleon still wielding its patriarchal control of the nation. However, things were changing, feminist movements were increasingly visible and the solidarity for the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights in the French law was total.

Importantly, the principles for the existence of the bill didn’t revolve around the right to privacy but rather around the social impact of the code of silence and hypocritical stand against women’s right to access abortion. About 300 women would die every year in France from botched abortions. The slogan “abortion to the rich and punishment for the poor” was chanted in demonstrations for abortion rights.

With this bill, Simone Veil placed abortion in a context of contraception and not murder while addressing the responsibility of society in confronting the social needs of women of all socio-economic backgrounds, including elements such as financial coverage of pregnancies, childcare, and health care. She later established paid maternity-leave.

Simone Veil relied on a strong feminist movement of solidarity to achieve the advancement of women’s rights. For instance, in 1972, the lawyer Gisèle Alimi transformed a trial against a young woman who had an abortion after a rape and the women who helped her, including her mother, into a political scene for the cause of women’s rights. She had supported Simone Veil in defending the rights of the Algerian women prisoners, and remained her eternal ally and vice versa, although being from different political sides.

During the debate, Simone Veil asserted that the fetus was not yet a full human being. She used the WHO statistics about pregnancies and the flimsiness of life, to remind that 45 pregnancies out of 100 miscarried during the 2 first weeks of pregnancy. She emphasized the embryo as a becoming not a being, as opposed to the woman who is pregnant. She claimed that the legalization of abortion was an absolute necessity to keep order while normalizing the role of women in the society.

Despite all her precautions, she had to face the most violent opposition from her own party, with anti-Semitic, racist and sexist slurs invoking images of Nazi times against her. She explained later that she found her strength in the memory of her mother and her own battle to stay alive. In 2008, in an interview, she said that she still received hate mail for her role in the liberalization of abortion in France. But she never flinched.

While Minister of Health she continued her battle for the women’s workplace rights, imposing recognition of the status of nurses and other positions in majority held by women. She also pushed for the increased presence of women in medical institutions at the upper level.

She was also a staunch supporter of reconciliation between France and Germany and an architect of the European Union. In 1979, she became the first woman President of the European Parliament. There she worked restlessly for male-female parity in politics. She always believed that affirmative action was the only way to change the mentalities and to guarantee better presence of women in every section of the society. She always reminded people that it would benefit the entire society.

In 1995, after the scandalous episode of the “juppettes” (short skirt) terms that symbolized the exclusion of women from Chirac’s administration, Simone Veil was part of group of ten women, five from the right and five from the left, who had held ministerial responsibilities to work on a manifesto to obtain female-male parity in public representation. They asked the candidates to the next presidential election to sign it. The female-male parity is now in the Constitution.

In 2008 after being elected at the Académie Francaise, she reflected on the situation of women in society, acknowledging that although access to contraception and abortion were crucial for the independence of women, women were still the target of basic discriminations: workplace inequality, underrepresentation in positions of power, undervalued societal roles and often perceived as fillers.  She ended that interview by recognizing that the way for women’s rights was long and added that the climate was still not in favor of women.

Simone Veil has been described as a radical feminist and a radical humanist. She described herself as French Jewish laic woman who rebelled against male domination and all sorts of domination and adopted the European ideal “united in diversity.” She practiced solidarity with a resolute vigor always joining the cause of the defense of the most vulnerable.  May her courage and unshakable capacity to denounce sexism and xenophobia and to build coherent resistance be an inspiration at the time of constant challenges for human and women’s dignity. Hats off Madame Veil!

 

(Photo Credit: Le Monde)

It’s election time in France, and women’s rights are on the agenda!

Laura Slimani

It is election time in France! It is a decidedly contested race, and women’s rights have gained some visibility in this unsettled political context.

Marine Le Pen, the extreme right wing candidate has used deceiving methods to attract women’s votes while her party’s anti women’s rights vote at the European parliament reach a perfect score. The website “Womens’rights against extreme rights” was launched at the beginning of the campaign to debunk her fraudulent claims.

In an unusual move for France, the right wing candidate Francois Fillon made religious claims on women’s right to abortion, demonstrating its reluctance to apply strong public policies to improve women’s rights.

The center right candidate Emmanuel Macron former minister of Finance in Hollande’s administration has defended measures that have increased women’s precarity. Still, as a candidate he claims that he will support women’s rights in general terms.

Candidates on the left, such as Benoit Hamon or Jean Luc Melenchon have shown more determination to articulate a program that includes important feminist demands. Melenchon’s campaign published a document entitled: “Equality between women and men, to abolish patriarchy”. Hamon’s campaign has produced documents as well. Both are very similar in their approach to increase representation of women.

We talked with Laura Slimani, a spokesperson in Hamon’s campaign, and she shared with us some of their vision on women’s rights.

 

(Photo Credit: Huffington Post / AFP) (Interview by author)

For women’s rights and gender equality, the State must spend time and energy to change people’s minds

Najat Vallaud Belkacem

Najat Vallaud Belkacem’s first position in government was as Minister of Women’s Rights, in Francois Hollande’s administration.  She became only the second Minister of Women’s Rights ever in France. The first, Yvette Roudy, served under President Mitterrand in the 1980s. Najat Vallaud Belkacem became the first woman Minister of National Education, her current position. We met her in her office to discuss what has to be defended and improved in the realm of gender equality and women’s rights in this period of electoral uncertainty.

As Minister of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, her actions were marked by her commitment to collective work with women’s groups and associations, prodding legislators into enacting laws for the furtherance of women’s rights and gender equality. Under her administration, legislation against sexual harassment, in favor of additional protection for women victims of violence, and to make abortion and contraception completely free was passed. Protection for abortion centers has been reinforced. She asserted that “abortion is a right in itself and not something dependent on conditions.” She also worked for legislation to reinforce the notion of education of gender equality starting in “maternelle” (pre-kindergarten, a public school in France). She accomplished much despite a meager budget. The politics of austerity also hindered access to public services such as abortion centers. In the deleterious political climate with the rise of the extreme right, she also faced racist slurs. Nonetheless, she secured important headways for women.

Sincere and relentless political engagement became her way of action for gender equality and women’s rights. Her message for us is that, to secure women’s rights and gender equality, the State must spend time and energy to change people’s minds. Here’s our interview:

 

(Photo Credit 1: Mounir Belhidaoui/RespectMag) (Photo Credit 2: Phototèque Rouge/Marc Paris/ RespectMag)