Why are labour unions in France protesting?

A look at why the French unions are angry at the legislation that the French government promises will boost business.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Tear gas fills the air during clashes with French gendarmes and riot police during a demonstration in protest of the government's proposed labour law reforms in Paris, France, May 26, 2016.

Updated Jun 2, 2016

March 9 saw youth organisations and unions in Paris, France protest the ‘El Khomri law’ which looks to reform certain conditions of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws. The socialist government promises these reforms will help break the shackles of unemployment.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets since then. Recent protests saw railway workers strike, blockades at refineries and nuclear power plants and the use of police force against protesters. The demonstrations are entering the third month with a cast of anywhere between 100,000 to 1.2 million protesters, depending on who’s counting.

By May 10, French President Francois Hollande had decided to push the bill through a special decree, bypassing Parliament and angering both the public and MPs; June 14 will see the legislation in the upper house or Senate. Esaclating protests against these labour reforms have interrupted life in France over the last few months.

Who is protesting and which services are impacted?

Trade unions and student organisations are the most prominent faces of the protests in France. General Confederation of Labour (GCT), the national trade union, is the most vocal of other participating organisations.

CGT (which is also the second largest union) asked its members to go on a nationwide strikes from June 1 to June 14. National rail services are being affected by these picket lines as train services were suspended the evening of May 31.

The Paris transport system (RATP) joined the ongoing strikes on June 2. RATP carries three billion passengers per year.

Deserted platforms are pictured at the Lyon Perrache railway station, on June 1, 2016.

Employees at the Nogent-Sur-Seine (nuclear) plant voted for stopping production to protest the reforms. French electric utility company EDF said power output at several production units was cut after nearly 14 percent of its staff joined rallies.

Force Ouvriere and SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Democratiques) union protests have also affected oil refineries in France, forcing shut six out of eight. There are reports indicating nearly 30 percent of petrol stations in France being empty.

Unions have also called on employees from the DGAC civil aviation authority to go on strike from June 3 but negotiations were to take place on June 1.

Some commentators believe the protesters are the “usual suspects” comprising of veteran activists, unions, pensioners and others; not reflective of the public at large or even the private companies which have been paralysed by the original labour code.

Why is the French government doing this?

The unemployment rate in France hovers around 10 percent; with a 24 percent unemployment rate for the youth, whose betterment was a ticket topic for Hollande. The labour law has been pitched by both the government and other economists as a step to stem if not reduce unemployment.

Economic growth since his election in 2012 has averaged 0.5 percent per year.

However, unemployment or economic growth are no longer not part of the debate and noise surrounding the El Khomri law, named after French Labour Minister, as both sides have been accused of botching up essential reforms.

So what does the El Khomri law actually change?

With the world looking at striking images of police clashing with protesters, the labour reform law—the trigger point—has taken a backseat as accusations and emotions take over the narrative. Some economists suggest it is one of the most important “labour-market legislation for 15 years."

French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri speaks during a session of questions to the Government at the French National Assembly in Paris, on May 31, 2016.

Here’s a bare-bones version of the changes proposed to France’s labour code, widely known for being longer than the Bible:

The hours

Currently, workers in France work 35 hours per week (on the lower end of the scale across the EU). That might make people from other countries with longer work weeks scoff but research suggests French productivity is higher per hour than England and even Germany.

The reforms will leave the 35-week intact but as an average. Businesses will be allowed to negotiate hours per week with their employees but only up to a maximum of 48 hours. Companies will compensate employees by offering shorter weeks so their hours average to 35 per week over a three-month period. Only in “exceptional circumstances,” could workers be required to work up to 60 hours weekly.

Hiring and evaluation

The proposed bill would allow businesses to hire people and place them in a three-month evaluation period. At the end of the three months, the firm would have the option to retain or fire the employee.

Businesses that employ 50 to 300 people could justify layoffs if they have unsatisfactory results over three consecutive trimesters. Earlier, companies were unwilling to hire permanent employees as firing was heavily regulated, leaving a large number of employees in unreliable, short-term contracts.

The proposed bill will also give employers the option to negotiate special leaves and holidays. This will include maternity leave.

Additionally, it will also give businesses greater flexibility to reduce pay and renegotiate layoff compensation.

Currently, French labour law is heavily regulated and favours the worker. Protesters feel the proposed bill is too pro-businesses.

The government’s response to anti-reform action

Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have shown no signs of backing down. With their reputations at stake, they have held firm saying the worst thing would be the status quo.

Valls said on television, “We are not going to change the bill because then we would not be able to reform the country.”

In response to his remarks, CGT union secretary General Philippe Martinez said, “We are determined to take this to the end to have the labour law repealed.”

This seems unlikely for Hollande who has said he will not run for re-election in next April’s vote unless he can improve employment and growth rates.

On May 27, as French riot police forcibly removed workers blocking a fuel depot, Hollande said, “I will stay the course because this is a good reform and we must go all the way to adoption.”

A striking French labour union employee stands near a burning barricade during a police operation to free up a fuel depot near the Donges oil refinery as workers protest the labour reforms law proposal in Donges, France, May 27, 2016. Reuters

With Euro 2016 Cup approaching the strikes and protests could be a major embarrassment for France. The government has been accused of buying off protesters by announcing a pay raise for teachers before the soccer tournament kicks off.

Hollande’s reelection

Hollande’s heavy-handed handly of the labour reform bill has also angered MPs in his own party. MPs are are pushing for a no-confidence vote to take place and calling for early elections.

Regardless of the vote, Hollande’s approval ratings keep plummeting and support from his own party is receding amidst labour reform protests.

If Hollande runs for a second term and loses, the legacy he leaves behind would be full of criticism and questions.

TRTWorld and agencies