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LABOUR

French public ready to fight ‘ball and chain’ labour reforms

The French government faces a crucial week in its bid to reform the country's rigid labour market with protests as well as negotiations planned.

French public ready to fight 'ball and chain' labour reforms
The French public are ready to fight unpopular labour reforms. Photo: AFP

France's Socialist government will hold this week a round of negotiations aimed at salvaging its proposed labour reforms,
as it faces fierce opposition against the draft bill and the spectre of street protests on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Sunday pledged to make “improvements” to the text, which has driven a wedge within the Socialist Party itself, infuriated labour unions and prompted a massively followed online petition.

Valls, who will on Monday launch a round of meetings with union and business leaders, told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that the draft should be “improved” and “completed”, but added: “What we cannot do is maintain the status quo.”

But the Force Ouvriere union said a revision was out of the question, repeating its demand that the proposed reforms be scrapped altogether.

“It's not one, two or a few articles that need to be modified but the entire text that won't do,” Pascal Pavageau, the FO's economy pointman, said Sunday.

Rather than “negotiate the weight of the ball and the length of the chain… we call on (Valls) to withdraw this text,” he said.

Unveiled in mid-February, the El Khomri law named after Economy Minister Myriam El Khomri is designed to give employers more flexibility in hiring and firing, but critics say it unduly threatens job security.

On Sunday Valls insisted: “This labour law means more transparency for businesses and more protection for employees.”

And he dismissed suggestions last week that the government could push the reforms through by resorting to a manoeuvre to bypass parliament, saying the law would be “brought to fruition with the necessary changes”.

The prime minister faces strong opposition from the left flank of his own Socialist Party, while seven in 10 French are opposed to the changes, according to a poll.

A number of organisations including youth groups have called demonstrations for Wednesday and later in the month to protest against the plans, which many think will fail to create jobs.

READ ALSO: How working life in France is set to change (for the worse?)

(The online petition against El Khomri's reforms that has garnered over one million signatures. Photo: AFP)



A million signatures

At 25 percent, youth unemployment in France is among the highest in Europe.

The online petition titled “Labour Law: No Thanks”, initiated by 35-year-old feminist Caroline de Haas, has attracted more than a million signatures, but it is a wild card in the mix, since it is unclear what will come of the initiative.

The reforms are part of efforts to combat stubborn unemployment in a country where employers are loath to take on permanent workers because of stiff obstacles to laying them off in lean times.

France, the eurozone's second largest economy, is under pressure from the European Commission to bring down labour costs as well as its 10.2 joblessness rate.

Currently French companies have to justify in court plans to shed workers due to an economic downturn, a process they say makes them reluctant to hire in the first place.

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

The law would also allow employers to work around unions and negotiate working conditions such as overtime pay and maximum working hours directly with their employees.

It would also cap the total amount of damages claims they may have to pay in case of litigation.

The proposals were initially set to be submitted to the cabinet on Wednesday, but in the face of the opposition last week this date was shifted to March 24.

University and high school student groups as well as labour unions have called for protests on Wednesday, which has also been designated for work stoppages by the Paris Metro and the French national rail company SNCF, upset
over working conditions.

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LABOUR

Macron to face nationwide public sector protests in March

French railways workers were urged Friday to join civil servants in a nationwide day of protest next month against President Emmanuel Macron's reform agenda in what will be a major test of strength.

Macron to face nationwide public sector protests in March
Photo: AFP
The leader of the country's biggest public-sector trade union, the CGT, called the rail protests on March 22 over plans by the government to remove some of the privileges enjoyed by workers on the train network.
   
The trigger was a major report recommending an overhaul of the debt-laden and loss-making SNCF rail system which was submitted to Macron's centrist government on Thursday.
   
“Rail workers will organise a national protest day on March 22 and of course rail workers will defend public services, their jobs and their status,” the head of the CGT Philippe Martinez told France Inter radio.
 
Civil servants are also set to demonstrate the same day over a proposed shake up that will see some workers offered redundancy packages and higher use of short-term contracts.
   
Macron wants to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over the course of his five-year term.
 
READ ALSO: 

Have France's ‘spoilt' civil servants just got it too easy?Photo: AFP

Previous protests
 
The 40-year-old leader faced a first series of demonstrations led by the CGT in September and October last year over his reforms to the labour code, which were unsuccessful in preventing the changes becoming law.
   
The victory for the government led to questions about whether the once fearsome French trade unions are still able to mobilise large crowds and cripple public services.

 
The demonstrations on March 22 coincide with the 50th anniversary of a major student protest at a university near Paris in 1968, a precursor to the nationwide strikes that roiled the country in May of the same year.
   
Large demonstrations and strikes are a common feature of French democracy and have repeatedly forced governments into policy U-turns in the past, but Macron has vowed to press ahead.
   
The most sensitive part of the rail report submitted on Thursday suggests that new railway workers should not be given the same historic employment privileges as their colleagues, such as early retirement and life-long job security.
   
“It's not illogical to say that if in the future you take on new employees they should have a pension that is the same as for other French people,” the head of Macron's Republic on the Move party, Christophe Castaner, said Friday.
   
Castaner said that on average France's 140,000 rail workers retire aged 57.5 years, compared with 62 in the private sector. Train drivers retire in their early 50s.
   
The rail reform report, prepared by the former head of Air France Jean-Cyril Spinetta, proposed 43 changes including the shutting of smaller loss-making rail links in rural areas.
   
He said that the state of the railways was “worrying” and highlighted annual losses of 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion).
   
The rail network's ever rising debt will reach 50 billion euros in 2018, the report said.