Attempt to reform French labour law risks becoming political shipwreck

Opposition to the law from left and right is a sign of broader dissatisfaction

An activist shouts slogans in front of French gendarmes during a demonstration in Paris yesterday against the labour law proposal. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

An activist shouts slogans in front of French gendarmes during a demonstration in Paris yesterday against the labour law proposal. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

 

The French National Assembly yesterday began a marathon debate on the El Khomri law, intended to reform France’s 3,589-page labour code.

The law, named after labour minister Myriam El Khomri, is the ultimate test of French president François Hollande’s ability to bring a significant project to fruition, one year before presidential and legislative elections.

Like the failed attempt to change the constitution to revoke the citizenship of convicted terrorists, the labour law is in danger of becoming a political shipwreck.

Deputies in the National Assembly have put forward 5,000 amendments to the 54-article law, making it virtually impossible to complete the debate by the target date of May 12th, for a vote on May 17th. 

Hollande promised in January to reform the labour code. The draft law presented in February so outraged the left and trade unions that it had to be rewritten. A proposed cap on damages in the event of unfair dismissals was dropped.

The business-friendly text, intended to encourage job creation, was recast as an increase in social protection.

Nevertheless, four trade unions and three youth groups say they will continue protests until the El Khomri law is withdrawn. Demonstrations have been marred by vandalism and violence, which some accuse police of instigating.

Dead democracy

Hollande yesterday described the law as “a dynamic and just compromise”.

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, first secretary of the socialist party, said that any text opposed by both the business confederation Medef and the communist trade union CGT “must be balanced”.

Right-wing deputies who supported the original law oppose the present version and have promised to stage a vote of no confidence if the government attempts to pass the law by decree, as allowed by section 49.3 of the constitution.

There is widespread speculation that prime minister Manuel Valls will be forced to wield “le 49.3”. a sort of legislative nuclear weapon, to pass the law. The mere possibility is already being denounced as “a denial of democracy”.

Myriam El Khomri, at 38, is the youngest cabinet minister, and is relatively inexperienced. The daughter of a Moroccan shopkeeper and a Breton mother, she emigrated from Morocco when she was nine. 

Like Christiane Taubira, the former justice minister who saw through the same-sex marriage legislation, El Khomri has been left to defend her law alone. But there is a fundamental difference: Taubira had the support of the entire left, whereas the left is deeply divided on the El Khomri law.

Christophe Sirugue, the socialist rapporteur, says the proposed law is likely to fall 40 votes short of a majority.

Two provisions in the law before the National Assembly are “red lines” for the left. 

One would allow an accord within a company to supersede broader agreements negotiated by trade unions. This is referred to as “inversion of the hierarchy” by the unions.

The other controversial provision, known as “the perimeter of appreciation”, would allow companies to fire employees on economic grounds if they are losing money in France, even if they make profits abroad. 

An editorial in the economic daily Les Échos called a proposed compromise, which would allow French social judges to decide whether multinationals can fire French employees, comparable to allowing highway toll booth workers to determine the strategy of the Renault car company.

Contract tax

At this point, the actual text seems almost immaterial. Like water protests in Ireland, opposition to the El Khomri law is an expression of broader dissatisfaction.

“It has become a symbol on both sides,” said the conservative newspaper Le Figaro. “Of reforming zeal and political courage on the government side; of resistance to economic liberalism and defence of employees on the other.”

The debate goes to the core of the French economic crisis, in which unemployment stubbornly remains above 10 per cent.

Businesses say they cannot afford to employ more people with such high social charges, and they cannot risk hiring new employees when firing them is a long, uncertain and costly process.

Trade unions and the left, for their part, refuse to relinquish rights accrued over many decades.

Yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the Popular Front government, which raised salaries by up to 15 per cent, legalised trade unions, and created paid holidays and the 40-hour working week.

Referring to the anniversary, Jean-Claude Mailly, the head of the Force Ouvrière union, which opposes the new law, said: “Let’s see if they betray us again, if they betray [Popular Front prime minister] Léon Blum.”

Bruno Dives of Sud-Ouest newspaper contrasted “the days of unity, festivities and social conquests in 1936” to “the present, marked by division, street protests and a reform which is synonymous with social regression for part of the left”.

Despite France’s €2.1 trillion public debt and continuing violation of the euro zone’s 3 per cent cap on deficit spending, the ruling socialists have promised more than €4 billion to specific sectors since January.

Bonus increases

In March, civil servants were promised a 1.2 per cent rise in base salary, costing €600 million. Farmers earlier obtained a €400 million plan to support livestock and a €500 million decrease in social charges.

Le Figaro described these “gifts” as “a salvage operation as old as the hills: accumulate presents in the run-up to the presidential election, in the hope of winning the recipients’ votes.”

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