Widespread protests by unemployed people: towards a new form of social movement?

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In December 1997 and January 1998, France has seen a growing wave of protests by unemployed people, which has grown from specific local actions into a nationwide movement. The demands of the protesters have challenged both the Government and the trade unions which co-manage the unemployment insurance fund, and raised basic questions about the collective representation of unemployed people and the financial support for those unemployed long-term.

Local protests of unemployed people, which began at the start of December 1997, when they were limited to the articulation of a set of precise demands, have since developed into a nationwide movement, challenging both the Government and the trade unions which co-manage the UNEDIC unemployment insurance fund. The wide range of protests taking place over the whole of France have thus had an impact greatly exceeding the number of activists actually involved. Beyond the resolution of this new type of social "conflict", two basic questions remain to be answered by political and union leaders. Firstly, how can collective representation which gives unemployed people a voice, be organised? Secondly, how can the system of unemployment benefit ensure that long-term unemployed people are taken care of financially?

The development of the movement: minority protests and a growing echo

The unemployed people's protest movemen got under way in Marseille on 4 December 1997, under the initiative of the CGT trade union's unemployed committee for the Bouches du Rhône département, set up in 1990 when more than 4,000 employees were laid off from the naval dockyard at La Ciotat. The movement first based its demands on those developed over a period of several years, such as the payment of Christmas "bonuses" of FRF 3,000 for the unemployed people in most need. In 1996, 55,000 unemployed people had received such a payment in this département- a bonus averaging FRF 1,750. However, the reform of the contingency funds held by the ASSEDIC s (the associations responsible for paying unemployment benefit) which was decided in July 1997 and applicable from 1 October 1997 (FR9707158N), has not enabled these associations to grant the emergency payments claimed by unemployed people. This reform, although accompanied by an increase in the overall contingency fund (FRF 1.2 billion in 1996, rising to FRF 1.6 billion in 1997), has led to both the rechannelling of aid into training and retraining programmes, and the delegation of the management of emergency aid (for housing or electricity etc) to organisations outside the ASSEDICs.

This locally-based movement spread steadily to other regions of France. Its development was facilitated by the launch of a national appeal, prepared for several months by unemployed associations, housing groups and some unions (Groupe des 10, FSU, and CFDT-Tous Ensemble) for a special "social emergency" week from 16 to 21 December.

As part of this appeal, different protests took place:

  • sit-ins at ASSEDIC offices, and also welfare and family benefit centres, began in several départements, sometimes jointly organised by the unemployed associations and CGT unemployed committees, as in Arras in the Nord département. In several départements, the movement was directly supported by local branches of the Communist Party or Communist-run town councils;
  • the headquarters of CGIP, the company run by Ernest-Antoine Sellière, the new president of the CNPF employers' confederation (FR9712188N), was occupied by around 40 demonstrators on 16 December.
  • 200 demonstrators from both unemployed associations and the member unions of the Groupe des 10, took over the Louvre pyramid on 17 December. On 20 December, a debate on exclusion was organised, culminating in the "Louvre appeal" on inequality; and
  • on 24 December, a demonstration in front of UNEDIC's headquarters saw a combination of participants from the CGT unemployed committees and all the associations and unions involved in preparing the "social emergency" week.

In the absence of a response from UNEDIC and because of the "insufficiency" of the measures announced by the Government, protests carried on after Christmas. The demands had changed, no longer being confined to a Christmas "bonus", but aiming to get the minimum benefits raised by FRF 1,500 .

On 7 January 1998, a national demonstration was organised at the instigation of the CGT unemployed committees and other unemployed associations. Several marches took place, with the largest in Paris and Marseille, where 3,000 demonstrators took part in each city. According to UNEDIC records, 26 ASSEDIC branches out of 636 outside Paris were occupied on 6 January, compared with 13, the previous day. The occupation of about 20 ASSEDIC premises continued on 10 January, when 18 ASSEDICs still under occupation were evacuated, sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes with the assistance of the police force. Despite these evacuations, unemployed associations announced that their protests would continue, principally by the occupation of other public places, like welfare centres. Another demonstration was planned for 13 January.

This protest movement seems set to continue, but remains the work of a minority, considering the number of activists from the unemployed associations and unions who are taking part, or the number of demonstrators on the streets on 7 January. However, public support for the protests (63% of French people either "support" or "sympathise with" the protests according to a poll published on 31 December), the media attention they have received, together with the support of the Communists and the Green Party (both of which are part of the governing coalition), and that of the CGT (which takes part in the management of UNEDIC) explains why the movement's audience so greatly exceeds the number of activists actually involved.

Government responses

Initially, the Government did not react. However, the durability of the protests, the political backing they have enjoyed and the steady extension of demands, have led the Government to take steps to help unemployed people.

The first series of measures was announced by Martine Aubry, the Minister of Employment, between 18 and 24 December. This took the form of a 3% rise in the state-funded Allocation de solidarité spécifique(ASS) benefit, payable to long-term unemployed people, and the establishment of emergency groups in each départementcoordinated by the senior local representatives of the government at départementlevel (préfets), whose objective will be the examination of individual payments to those most in need. Additionally, a bill introduced by the Communists, which aims to raise the benefit for long-term unemployed people over 55 by FRF 1,500 will be placed on the National Assembly's agenda for discussion in January. This measure should directly affect 22,000 of the 500,000 long-term unemployed people receiving benefit.

In the face of continued mobilisation by unemployed people, a new series of measures was adopted. On 2 January 1998, Jean-Claude Gayssot, the Communist Minister of Transport, announced a public transport subsidy for unemployed people resident in the Paris region. On 3 January, the Minister of Employment, in turn, announced two measures: the creation of a FRF 500 million budget to fund partly the training benefit payable to unemployed people; and the strengthening of measures aiming to reintegrate the very long-term unemployed into the workforce. While announcing these measures, the Minister made it clear that "nothing justified the continuation of these illegal protests", and emphasised that only a minority were actually involved in them.

Reacting to the continued protests and their growing audience, the Prime Minister himself intervened, announcing two measures on 8 January, having held talks with unions, employers and unemployed associations: the allocation of a FRF 1 billion budget to finance emergency aid for the unemployed; and the appointment of an expert responsible for suggesting ways in which the minimum benefits might be developed in the future. At the same time, the evacuation of the remaining occupied ASSEDIC premises by the police was decided on and implemented on 10 January.

Moreover, the unemployed associations met for talks with the Minister of Employment on 12 January, to articulate their point of view on the bill on combating exclusion, which is currently being drafted. The associations were guaranteed participation on a consultative basis on the various stages of the bill's development, especially on the question of the representation of unemployed people.

Union responses

The CGT is the only one of the five union confederations recognised as officially representative on a national level (and which participates in the management of unemployment insurance funds on this basis) to be directly involved in the protests. Other than its participation in the protests on the ground, through its unemployed committees, the union head office has reiterated its original hostility to both the reform of contingency funds adopted in July 1997, and the lowering of unemployment insurance contributions decided in December. The CGT played a direct part in the protests, especially by calling for people to mobilise for the demonstration held on 7 January.

Without involving itself directly, the CFTC gave partial support to the demands of the unemployed associations regarding the contingency funds. On 30 December, CFTC president Alain Deleu stated that the "employers and unions involved in running the UNEDIC had partly got rid of the contingency funds by eliminating the joint committees' power of assessment, in spite of the CFTC's opposition." According to him, the result is that the Government now finds itself "in the front line" and "unable to create tailor-made solutions", as ASSEDIC could before the reform.

The CGT-FO, which is traditionally hostile to any non-union based representation of unemployed people because it leads to establishing an unemployed "status", while unemployment should by definition be temporary, focused its response on the state's responsibility, demanding a "substantial rise in minimum benefit levels".

The CFE-CGC went even further in condemning the protest movement. On 31 December, its president, Marc Villebenoît, strongly criticised the occupation of some ASSEDIC premises, but went on to make it clear that the predicament in which long-term unemployed people find themselves was "the state's responsibility".

As for the CFDT, its general secretary Nicole Notat (currently also president of UNEDIC) stated in an interview given on 5 January, that "the protests of a few dozen individuals, in a few ASSEDIC branches should be put in proportion." These were "simply wildcat operations aiming for media exposure (...) behind all this, some people are manipulating other people's hardship." Against a background of the protesters' demands, the UNEDIC president maintained her support for the reform of the contingency funds, but also emphasised the Government's responsibility for the prevention of long-term unemployment and exclusion.


The protest movement of unemployed people that France has been witnessing in December 1997-January 1998 is a form of social conflict not previously seen in the country. Not previously seen, that is, with such protagonists, unemployed people, who are isolated and thus difficult to mobilise, but who may also stretch their protest out over time, as they have nothing to fear in the shape of wage deductions or other forms of reprisal. It is also a new protest movement because of the coordination of the groups which have organised it. Unemployed associations such as AC and Apéis, but also, to a certain extent, the CGT's unemployed committees, had until now prioritised highly-focused, local action. The December-January movement has not yet altered the content of their protests, which are carried out by small groups of activists and aimed at symbolic objectives and attracting media attention. On the other hand, the chain of protests coordinated by trade unionists, CGT unemployed committees and unemployed associations, and their simultaneous enactment all over France, do constitute something new. The last new element is that it is the first time that a movement of the unemployed has caused a government to take national measures.

Apart from its novelty value, this social movement has raised two basic issues:

  • the question of representation for unemployed people (FR9708157F) has been raised in a very direct fashion by those involved. The very fact that the Minister of Employment and the Prime Minister met with them for talks is presented by unemployed associations as a victory in itself. However, their future role (consultation during the drafting of bills concerning them, their integration within the jointly-run authorities governing UNEDIC, etc) which will necessarily be conditioned by an assessment of their popularity, still remains to be clarified; and
  • the institutional structure of the system of unemployment benefits in France has also been challenged. The system's division, enshrined by law in 1984, into one system labelled "insurance", run jointly by unions and management, and funded by social contributions based on wages, and another labelled "solidarity", with its benefits set and funded by the state, has led each of them to refer the responsibility for the current developments to the other. In fact, since 1992, the rise in the number of unemployed people ineligible for benefit has stemmed both from the establishment of "degressive" benefit payment in 1992, and from the limited nature of the "solidarity" benefits. It has resulted in an increase in the number of unemployed people receiving only the minimum benefits, especially the RMI"minimum integration income" (a benefit guaranteeing a minimum income), established in 1988 as the social security system's final safety net.

This more than adequately explains why the demands of unemployed people have changed from sporadic ones, like the Christmas "bonus", to wider ones regarding minimum benefits. Moreover, while unemployment has been decreasing very slightly for the last three months, long-term unemployment has risen by 7.8% over the year from November 1996 to November 1997. However, for a majority of long-term unemployed people, as is the case for all employees in "precarious" and part-time work, most reforms regarding unemployment benefit implemented over the last 15 years have in practice meant a reduction in their income. The December-January movement has been the first large-scale response to this serious trend. (Christine Daniel, IRES)

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