• France's news in English
French labour reforms
France, the country of 'eternal deadlock' resists reforms
Photo: AFP

France, the country of 'eternal deadlock' resists reforms

Ben McPartland · 9 Mar 2016, 15:48

Published: 09 Mar 2016 15:48 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

If there was ever a day to experience France at its best or worst (delete as appropriate) it was Wednesday. If you wanted any proof that life in France was at last getting back to normal after the devastating terror attacks then this was it.

Train services were crippled around the country due to (yet another) defiant / irritating strike over pay and conditions. Students and high school pupils showed the Gallic appetite for protest lives on by blocking schools with dustbins and marching through the streets, clenched fists raised above their heads.

The students’ beef was with the controversial raft of labour reforms being proposed by the Socialist government – of all people – that they claim will harm their futures.

The bill is aimed at cutting the record unemployment by introducing more flexible working arrangements and overtime and making it easier for businesses to hire and fire staff, in a country where workers have a reputation for being almost unsackable.

President Hollande would call it flexicurity à la Française.

Despite facing a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent, those young French people who took to the streets are clearly not happy with the government’s attempts to fix it. 

"We are worth more than that," was one of their slogans.

They are, of course, backed by trade unions. Not just radical leftist unions but also more reformist unions like the CFDT, who are demanding the reforms be drawn up again.

'Will France remain blocked?'

The ever-unpopular President François Hollande has already wobbled in agreeing to delay the bill and backers of the reforms fear Hollande may buckle, leaving France to suffer once again due to its apparent inability to get with the times.

Veteran French politician François Bayrou, a centrist, summed up the frustration of many.

“Is France going to remain the country of blockages, the country of neverending deadlock, where every time a proposal is put forward the country says “NO” and takes to the streets to block it?” said Bayrou.

He criticised the government and particularly Hollande for not doing enough to explain the reforms to a public already fearful about loss of job security and trade unions baying for the blood of a government they feel has already betrayed them.

So what’s actually proposed by these reforms?

Essentially the changes are aimed at freeing up the labour market with the theory being it will be easier for companies to hire workers if it becomes easier to fire them when times are hard.

For example the rules around when workers can be laid off are to be relaxed so companies suffering losses or needing to “reorganize to save the company” can be let go.

The reforms aim to bring in more binding referendums for workers when unions fail to reach an agreement.

One particularly unpopular article in the bill will see French subsidiaries able to lay off workers in hard times, even if the mothership multinational company is in rude health.

(Bins block an entrance to a school in France on Wednesday. AFP)

Another highly unpopular move is to limit compensation pay-outs for workers found to have been unfairly sacked - a move aimed at helping small and medium companies.

Companies will be allowed to sack staff if they refuse to adapt to a change in working hours if the company expands or is in difficulty. Agreements on overtime will be sorted out between employees and bosses rather than at sector level as is often the case at the moment.

These measures will hardly seem particularly radical to many Anglo observers – who perhaps see job security as being able to find one, but to those on the left in France, who may see job security more as being able to keep one, they represent a devastating attack on their rights.

What’s worse for them is they are being pushed through by a Socialist government most of them helped into power.

“To those on the far-left, these reforms are worse than Satan,” said France-based economist Tomasz Michalski, who described the labour bill as "useful" and "important".

'Have we tried everything?'

But the under-pressure government and organisations representing businesses insist something must be done to boost the competitiveness of French companies struggling to adapt to globalisation.

“The worst thing to do would be to keep the status quo,” said PM Manuel Valls who is the driving force behind the reforms.

Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron pleaded: "Have we tried everything? Let us look outside France. What has happened elsewhere? They have all evolved, they have all done things," he said.

Story continues below…

(Three amigos, Myriam EL Khomri -the labour minister, the PM Manuel Valls and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.)

Even Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who carried out similar labour reforms, weighed into the row saying the French “should not be scared of change”.

But things are not as simple in France where left wing unions have a deep distrust – let’s just call it hatred – of big business, or the “patronat” as they are called in French.

They believe companies could quite easily hire more workers but instead just want to concentrate on maximising their profits. They mock the government’s notion that making it easier to sack workers will actually bring down unemployment.

But despite all the protests and arguing, most people in France agree something needs to be done. While an opinion poll said seven out of ten were against the reforms, another showed that 63 percent agreed France's 3,600 page labour code acted as a break on employment.

Economist Michalski, from HEC business school near Paris, believes France isn’t quite at deadlock as Bayrou would suggest and believes the reforms in some version or another will get through parliament.

“France is the last major EU country that hasn’t carried out major labour reforms,” said Michalski. “France was blocked for a very long time, but things are slowly starting to move.”

It’s doubtful they will move quickly enough to save Hollande’s presidency and these labour reforms could be his parting "gift" to the nation before he is booted out of the Elysée next year.

Whether or not they are a gift to France, only time will tell.


Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France takes baby steps to make life simpler
Photo: AFP

... including extending the ridiculously short time limit for registering a new baby.

IN PICTURES: Calais Jungle camp goes up in flames
All Photos: AFP

Migrants leave behind a scorched camp as they are moved to locations across France.

French expats in UK suffer Brexit abuse
French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP

French nationals no longer feel at home in the UK, ambassador says. But Brits in France have been greeted with sympathy since the referendum.

Six to go on trial in France over topless Kate photos
Photo: AFP

The topless pics sparked fury among the royals.

France sees biggest drop in jobless rate for 20 years
Photo: AFP

Good news at last. But it's unlikely to keep President François Hollande in his job.

Calais migrants given mixed reception in French towns
Photo: AFP

Some in France have shown solidarity with their new guests, while others have made it clear they are not welcome.

Lonely Planet says Bordeaux is world's best city to visit
The fantastic new Bordeaux wine museum. Photo: AFP

After The Local France, the Lonely Planet has followed suit by urging everyone to head to Bordeaux in 2017.

Jungle shacks set ablaze and torn down as camp razed
All photos: AFP

IN PICTURES: The razing of the Jungle has finally begun.

Frenchwoman finds WW1 grenade among her spuds
Photo: AFP

It could have been a very explosive family dinner.

Refugee crisis
What rights to a future in France for Calais migrants?
Photo: AFP

What does the future hold for the migrants of the Jungle? Can they work or claim social benefits or travel freely inside Europe?

The annoying questions only a half French, half Brit can answer
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Forget Brangelina's chateau - here are nine others you've got to see
The must-see French films of the millennium - Part One
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
jobs available