French Government Pushes Divisive Labor Law Through Parliament

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 France’s government pushed through Parliament a controversial overhaul of the country’s labor law on Wednesday, the last step of a lengthy legislative process that has split President François Hollande’s Socialist Party less than a year before presidential and legislative elections.

The law, which eases rules for firing, hiring and setting work hours, was one of the most hotly debated and widely protested measures of Mr. Hollande’s term, which began in 2012. For months, angry protesters took to the streets of Paris and other cities for occasionally violent demonstrations against the proposal.

Recent polls show that 70 percent of the public oppose the overhaul. Proponents of the measure say it is essential to reduce the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate and to make the French economy more competitive.

France is still reeling from the attack that killed 84 people on Bastille Day last week in Nice, and asking whether it could have been avoided and who was to blame. The attack, the third major terrorist assault in France in 19 months, turned the nation’s attention away from what has been one of the most controversial actions taken by Mr. Hollande’s government.

The government pushed the bill through the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, without a vote, because opposition from rebel Socialist lawmakers meant it did not have a clear majority. It was the third time the government has bypassed lawmakers to advance the law, by invoking a special constitutional provision.

That provision allows lawmakers to protest by filing a no-confidence motion in the government within 24 hours. But neither the center-right Republicans, the main opposition party, nor the rebel Socialists and other leftists who opposed the bill, are expected to do so, and the measure is expected to officially pass on Thursday afternoon.

It was not the only economic measure adopted through the constitutional provision, which is supposed to be used sparingly: Last year, it was used to adopt measures put together by the economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, that opened up certain professions to competition and allowed stores in major tourist areas to open on Sundays.

Opponents of the labor law overhaul argue that it weakens hard-won worker protections and dispute the notion that it will help jump-start economic growth.

Force Ouvrière, one of the main unions opposed to the changes, said in a statement after the overhaul was pushed through that the bill “was and remains sullied by its antidemocratic character” and vowed to continue fighting against it.

Although the government watered down some of the measures — removing, for instance, a mechanism to cap payouts to dismissed workers — it never backed down to pressure from those who wanted the bill scrapped entirely.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in a speech on Wednesday at the National Assembly before he invoked the constitutional provision, called the overhaul “indispensable.”

He said: “This bill is a bill of progress. This bill puts an end to rigidities in the labor market.”

Unions opposed to the overhaul took to the streets a dozen times between March and July, organizing nationwide demonstrations that sometimes turned violent and saw protesters clash with the police, with injuries on both sides.

Last month, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that more than 1,700 people had been arrested during the protests, and more than 550 police officers and gendarmes injured.

The unions protesting the bill, led by the hard-line General Confederation of Labor, known as the C.G.T., were particularly infuriated by a provision that allows labor agreements negotiated by individual companies — over issues such as hours worked and overtime pay — to take precedence over agreements negotiated at the occupational sector level.

They argued that unions at the individual company level were in a weaker position to negotiate with their employers. But the government and its allies, like the more moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labor, or C.F.D.T., a union that supported the bill, said that individual companies needed to have the flexibility to adapt to an increasingly competitive global market.

At times, protesters stopped collecting trash, went on strike at nuclear power plants and blocked gas refineries. The protests quickly became as much about the law as they were about expressing frustration and dissatisfaction with Mr. Hollande, who is expected to run for re-election next year but has struggled to make good on his promise to significantly lower unemployment.

Lawmakers who oppose the labor law overhaul can still challenge it at France’s constitutional court before the law is officially promulgated. The last union protest against the legislation was on July 5 and none are scheduled for the summer, but the C.G.T. and its allies have called for more demonstrations in the fall.

“The anger is still there,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the C.G.T., told the newspaper L’Humanité this month. “The government isn’t done with the labor law.”

Aurelien Breeden, New York Times, 20 July 2016,