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French government wobbles on key labour reforms bill

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File photo: AFP
16:22 CET+01:00
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday retreated on controversial labour reform plans opposed by the left flank of his Socialist Party, setting a new round of consultations on the proposals.

Leaked in mid-February and greeted with howls of protest from trade unions, the proposals would essentially make it easier for companies to lay off workers.

"Probably over the next week I will meet with all social partners, labour unions and employers' organizations, one by one," Valls told reporters.

Valls said that after the consultations, he hoped to bring the parties together with the labour and economy ministers, Myriam El Khomri and Emmanuel Macron, to renew discussion on the reform plans.

The submission of the proposals to the cabinet has been postponed from March 9th to March 24th, a government source told AFP.

MP Christian Paul, leader of Socialist dissidents in parliament, said on Monday: "What we need today is to withdraw (the proposals) for a deep re-write, and not a postponement."

Labour unions had a mixed reaction to the delay, with the CFDT's Laurent Berger welcoming the chance to "rebalance the text".

Jean-Claude Mailly of the more left wing union Force Ouvriere however was sceptical, saying "postponing is not suspending... This changes nothing."

The reforms are part of government efforts to combat record unemployment levels in a country where employers are loath to take on permanent workers, as letting them go can be near impossible.

However critics have complained the measures would dismantle one of the key job guarantees for French workers.

Currently French companies have to justify in court plans to shed workers due to an economic downturn, a process they have complained makes it difficult and expensive to trim staff when the economy slows and ultimately makes them reluctant to hire.

The reform spells out simple conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses as sufficient cause for shedding employees.

It also provides more room for companies to reach agreements with their staff on employment conditions, and provide more exceptions to the conditions set out in the labour code, including on overtime pay and maximum working hours.

Socialist 'implosion'

El Khomri said the proposals aimed to boost competitiveness and protect jobs.

With many left-wing Socialists unhappy with the adoption of pro-business policies, El Khomri threatened that the government could use a controversial mechanism allowed under the French constitution to adopt the law without parliamentary approval.

Paul said Monday he could "not rule out" calling for a no-confidence vote if the government takes that route.

"We have to clear up a certain number of misunderstandings," Valls said.

"We have to explain, respond to a whole series of false reports about this text."

Just last Tuesday Valls told French radio he did not doubt "for a single moment" that the cabinet would approve  the measures on March 9th.

A member of the right-wing Republican Party said with the disarray over the labour proposals, France was "witnessing live the implosion of the Socialist government".

The far left, for its part, reiterated calls for the reforms to be scrapped.

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French historian Stephan Sirot, who specializes in labour relations said the latest row was just part of an age-old debate in France.

"This debate - that some workers in France are too protected and mean others are out of work - has been around for 30 to 40 years in France," he told The Local.

"It's not new, it comes back, again and again.

"It basically shows that the French society values workers having strong protection, even if most of the public agree that reforms need to be made."

Sirot says part of the left's rebellion against the reform is down to the fact that they see it as the latest in a succession of policies that favour businesses over workers.

"While there have been reforms to favour companies, unions say there has been very little to favour workers and boost protection;" said Sirot.

 

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