A new rightwing talking point has entered the political debate ahead of France's presidential elections: should foreign workers be required to speak French on building sites?
Six of France's 13 regions have adopted rules mandating French for labourers on state-funded building projects, drawing fire for trying to fan xenophobic sentiment ahead of the two round April-May vote for president.
With unemployment stuck at around 10 percent for years, polls show that jobs are the leading concern of French voters, with unfair competition for French companies from abroad a perennial political interest.
Although some backers have justified it as a security issue — workers might not be able to communicate unless they share a common language — others admit its aim is to prevent labourers from eastern Europe undercutting locals.
“It's an essential condition for the safety of building site workers,” said Valerie Pecresse, president of the Paris region Ile de France upon approving the rule for its public works last week.
The new language rule, which does not affect private building sites, is dubbed the “Moliere clause” after the 17th-century icon of French letters.
Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Wednesday said the rightwing backers of the language requirement aimed to “make election hay” out of a measure he called “openly discriminatory”.
The measure may run counter to European rules on public procurement, which bar discrimination on the grounds of nationality.
'Not love of language'
Of particular concern in France is a separate EU rule allowing companies to bring in workers from eastern European temporarily who must be paid the French minimum wage — but are exempt from high French social charges.
The measure “is not inspired by the love of our language but by the goal of impeding competition from foreign companies using foreign workers,” Cazeneuve added.
Socialist lawmaker Gilles Savary said: “Don't be fooled, it's just electoral posturing with an undercurrent of xenophobia.”
He said there are no accident statistics to back up the safety claims, and even if it were applied across the country it would not prevent low-cost labour since French-speaking workers are available from France's many former colonies.
According to the labour ministry's policy unit, some 285,000 foreign workers are in France under a 1996 EU directive originally aimed at allowing companies to hire workers with specialised skills from other member states on a temporary basis.
Though the number has grown steadily over the years, it represents only one percent of the country's overall workforce.
In practise, many companies use the programme to bring in cheap labour, often from eastern Europe, in what is termed “social dumping” in France as local workers are priced out of jobs.
It dates from long before 10 mostly ex-communist states joined the EU in its 2004 big bang expansion.
Today, around one-sixth of France's foreign workers are from Poland.
The directive is under review because of abuses such as undeclared workers, workers being paid far less than the minimum wage, or overstaying the maximum period allowed.
The head of the employers' federation opposes the Moliere clause, warning of a slippery slope.
“You start with that and then you start to play favourites,” said Medef chief Pierre Gattaz, warning against “nationalist” excesses.
“Then you close the French borders and end up leaving the eurozone.”
These are planks in the platform of far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who for her part dismissed the Moliere clause as a devious half-measure, calling for the outright scrapping of the 1996 EU directive.
“When you don't want to say things clearly… you take circuitous routes,” she said.
Polls currently suggest Le Pen would win the first round of the election on April 23, but lose in the run-off on May 7 against independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
The debate is reminiscent of the run-up to a 2005 national referendum that rejected a draft European constitution partly over fears — fanned by the far-right — of a flood of cheap labour from eastern post-communist states.
Denis Bertrand, a prominent semiologist — specialising in the creation of meaning — said calling the rule the “Moliere clause” was manipulative.
“Why this rule all of a sudden?” asked Bertrand, a professor of French literature at Paris University.
“Asking a hardhat to speak the language of Moliere is a bit grotesque… Poor Moliere, a great genius is having his name used by people who are unworthy of him,” he told AFP.