French labour law reforms spark controversy
by Brian Collett—New French labour laws, making it easier for employers to hire and fire and allowing them to negotiate directly with employees, have been condemned by trade unions and the political left as an assault on workers’ rights.
The reforms, intended to tackle France’s high unemployment rate, were forced through without a parliamentary vote under a constitutional provision.
They give new powers to companies that are large enough to have union representation and are facing economic difficulties or are trying to increase market share. Companies may now bypass all collective union agreements to negotiate deals directly with employees on pay cuts and overtime arrangements.
Employees are allowed a ballot to decide whether to accept or reject an offer if talks reach deadlock.
When considering redundancies employers may now use declining economic performance to justify dismissals. Those with a workforce of ten or fewer may lay off staff after a one-month decline in income. Companies with up to 300 employees must show three successive quarters of falling revenues. The largest companies must wait a year.
Two measures that would have benefited employers were dropped from the new laws – the capping of severance packages to wrongfully dismissed employees and the choice for companies too small to have union representatives to agree to deals with staff on working hours.
The business lobby was particularly critical of the second omission, saying it disadvantages smaller businesses, which can create the majority of new jobs in a climate of high unemployment but contend they need flexible conditions to realise this potential. The overall jobless figure is more than 10%. Among young people it is almost 25%.
The first measure would have been welcomed by employers as the fear of heavy pay-offs had deterred some from hiring new people.
Employers’ bodies maintain the package was diluted to gain popular support. On the other side, the huge hard-line CGT union and other left-wing enthusiasts see the laws as weakening the unions and their collectively negotiated deals, and argue that as such they are pro-business.
The legislation has even brought protesters on to the streets. In Paris the most recent demonstration was banned by the police on security grounds but the government overturned the decision. In an earlier demonstration youths in balaclavas hurled Molotov cocktails, smashed windows, set cars alight and injured policemen.
Passions were inflamed in parliament too. Prime minister Manuel Valls, announcing the measures, said: “This country is too used to mass unemployment. It is not posturing, it is not intransigence.”
Many members booed and some walked out.