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Economy

French unions continue fight against controversial labour reform

media Protestors in Paris march behind a banner reading: "United against the labour law", 17 May 2016. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

French trade unions have called for strikes this week to protest against a labour reform bill that is currently making its way through parliament. On Tuesday, the first of two official strike days, President François Hollande said he would not drop the proposals, which have sparked five previous strike days.

Some in the labour movement question the motivation of the leadership in organising several individual strike days rather than one general strike.

“These individual strike days are very controversial,” Donna Kesselman, a trade union specialist at the University of Paris Est Creteil, told RFI.

“Some activists and members say: 'Why should we have these separated days? A movement every week or two doesn’t bother anyone and it creates anti-unionism and it wears people out'.”

Instead, there are calls for an ongoing general strike.

“If you close the country down for two or three days, then you’re sure to win,” she says, adding that there are questions being raised about the union leadership’s commitment to fighting the proposed labour reform.

Those turning out to protest are angry about the law but they are also expressing a general malaise with the state of the economy and disillusionment with the Socialist government.

This is reflected in politics, as the law was unable to pass with enough votes in the National Assembly last week, and had to be pushed through using a controversial constitutional measure.

There is popular opposition to the reforms, and to the very idea of the need to reform the labour code. But some economists and business owners have been calling for a change.

Bosses demand flexibility

Lawyer Franck Morel, who served as a labour advisor to the previous right-wing government, says employers are not hiring in France because the rules for laying people off are not clear.

“They don’t know if they hire if they will be able to dismiss without a judge saying your dismissal is not fair, is not good, is not respecting rules… If you are not sure if you will be able to dismiss, you are not hiring,” he told RFI.

“So you have to give more security and to give more security we have to give more flexible rules. And more flexible rules involve, among other things, giving a larger importance to company-level collective agreements.”

A key part of the current labour reform would allow employers to bypass sector-wide collective agreements and set things like working hours and wages at company level.

Morel says the version of the labour reform, when it was first introduced, addressed some of these flexibility issues. But it has since been watered down.

The bill's supporters say the same thing: French employers need more flexibility, to encourage them to hire.

Etienne Wasmer, an economist at Sciences Po, the French institute of political studies, was among several economists including Jean Tirol, last year’s economics Nobel prize-winner, who signed an open letter in support of the law in March.

He, too, highlights the need to loosen the sectorial agreements

“Some of these [agreements] are kind of obsolete and don’t really protect workers,” he told RFI.

He approves of adding flexibility, allowing companies to bypass some of them. But he adds a caveat: “We have to be cautioned by the fact that some firms would go too far, and check them every two years or every other year.”

Ongoing debate

The debates over the labour reform are ongoing, as the law does not go before the Senate before 14 June.

Trade unions are hoping to keep up the street pressure, to wear down the government.

Kesselman says this could work but that this week is unlikely to have much of an effect.

“It’s too little and too late,” she says. But movements around the Senate vote could gather steam. "One does feel a deep malaise, which could well build into a more widespread and enduring social movement."

The political calendar may also play into this movement: “This being an electoral year, anything can happen - not necessarily around this law, but one thing is for sure: it has mobilised a lot of opposition and will have consequences."

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