On Tuesday, May 10, despite protests that have lasted for weeks outside the French National Assembly and on the Paris streets, France’s socialist president François Hollande forced through a bill that will radically overhaul the country’s labour laws. …

On Tuesday, May 10, despite protests that have lasted for weeks outside the French National Assembly and on the Paris streets, France’s socialist president François Hollande forced through a bill that will radically overhaul the country’s labour laws. The government’s support of the bill has been greeted by angry demonstrations, cries of treachery from inside the Socialist Party itself and the birth of a leaderless grass-roots political movement, Nuit Debout (“Night Arising”) that has camped for weeks in the Place de la République since, legend has it, in the wake of a particularly energetic demonstration someone said “Let’s not go home”.

The decision to force the bill through the Assembly without a vote left Hollande and his government facing the risk of a backlash with only a year before the 2017 election for the president’s successor.  Hollande has staked his political future on reducing an unemployment rate that is among the highest in the European Union — 10 percent for the population as a whole, 25 percent among young workers. He has vowed not to stand for re-election if he fails to create work for the unemployed, but the betting is that Hollande will lose the election in any case.

The French unions have joined with students and young people to fight measures that would weaken the French labour laws that have protected workers’ rights with tough regulations regarding hiring, firing, hours and holidays. But the administration’s efforts at appeasement failed to satisfy pro-business politicians and the right who want ever more flexible labour policies, but did not do enough to address the demands of students and unions who see job insecurity growing and job opportunities shrinking. Critics claim that compromise has left the bill without any protection for workers, while the bosses and their political allies shout “Not enough, not enough”.

The bill allows companies to negotiate directly with unions over hours and holidays, instead of following minimum national standards for specific occupations, and it allows workers to be fired when a company is losing money even if they have been issued with a permanent contract of employment called a “contrat à durée indéterminée,” known as a CDI.

During the debate on Tuesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was shouted at as he tried to justify the government’s compulsion on the floor of the lower house of the Assembly. “What’s important is to find a way to reform,” Mr. Valls said, amid boos. “This country needs to move forward.”

Later on, Mr. Valls told the members of Parliament: “I am doing this, we are doing this, because we are convinced that this reform paves the way for lasting employment, and brings into the labour market those who are excluded, and so that, most notably, our smaller firms are able to hire.”

The law still has to face the hurdle of an upper house hearing, during which it is possible that members of Hollande’s party might vote against him. But if they do, the government will certainly fall, and that is an outcome that no Socialist Party member would prefer to living with a badly drafted and universally unpopular law.


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Gary Herman

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