Why are the French so angry about their labour law reforms?


Popular protest against France’s new Labour Law or “El Khomri” as it is known (named after the Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri) began in mid-February 2016 and has not abated, even though it was enacted at the beginning of August.

On Thursday 15 September, the unions opposed to the law took out their banners and went back out on the streets for the fourteenth time. They are demanding the repeal of the law and considering legal mechanisms to limit its scope.

“The bill was no good in spring, the law is no good in autumn,” said Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) speaking on the radio on 12 September.

It was a busy spring for the social partners. The trial of strength between the unions and the government, which used Article 49.3 of the Constitution three times to get the text adopted; strikes in the oil refineries and oil storage depots, in nuclear power stations; 12 days of demonstrations accompanied by violent incidents – all these events have made their mark on public opinion and given rise to incomprehension.

The labour law reform was widely rejected. According to the various surveys, between two thirds and three quarters of French citizens were opposed to the bill. Even employers’ representatives said they were not happy.

Why has this trial of strength continued to drag out, which in the end is bound to result in more losers than winners?


Poorly handled social dialogue

At the root of all the objections to the labour law is the way in which the government went about it. All the unions have reproached the administration for trying to bulldoze it through, after President François Hollande preached compromise and negotiation in October 2015.

“From the outset, the bill was written without consulting the unions. The government only met us after our demonstrations and only accepted minor changes that only satisfied one trade union organisation,” said Céline Verzeletti, a member of the CGT’s national leadership.

“They mishandled the social dialogue at a time when the government was legislating on a labour issue that concerns all workers. The government’s intransigence has been counter-productive. And in the process it risks losing the support of part of the left,” warns Yves Veyrier, confederal secretary at the national trade union centre Force Ouvrière (FO).

The unions’ protest led to some partial changes to the bill in mid-March. The capping of the compensation (industrial tribunal awards) paid to employees in the event of unfair dismissal, for example, was dropped.

The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), known as the ’reforming union’, felt a compromise had been reached.

However, there was also discontent on the parliamentary benches. The government could only rely on a tiny majority and had to resort to Article 49.3 which allows for a text to be adopted without a vote in Parliament, provided a vote of no confidence (which would lead to the resignation of the government) is not passed at the same time. The ruling party parliamentarians were not prepared to go quite that far.


A controversial reform

The El Khomri law is essentially meant to be socially conservative. It contains a set of measures that are difficult to decipher, and described as a “hotch potch” by the CFDT. One out of two French people say they don’t have enough information about the content of the text.

According to its promoters, the measures are aimed at protecting workers (notably by enabling them to change career or region while keeping their acquired rights) while at the same time fostering growth by offering more flexibility to business.

But it is Article 2 of the law that has really annoyed the opposing unions. It is about the rules governing social dialogue. In France the major principles concerning labour rights are set by law. Industry agreements (by sector) can change the rules provided the agreement is more advantageous than the provisions set down in the law.

At the lower level, an enterprise agreement must also be more protective than the sector agreement. And finally, an employment contract provides more protection than an enterprise or sector agreement, if it changes. Exceptions exist under what is known as the hierarchy of standards.

But under Article 2 of the new law, these exceptions have become the rule, as far as the duration and organisation of work are concerned. It reverses the hierarchy of standards: the enterprise agreement takes precedence over the sector agreement when deciding overtime hours and how they are paid, for example.

“Negotiations are going to be decentralised to the enterprise level, to the detriment of the sector level,” explains Veyrier.

“The rules governing the organisation of work will vary within the same sector, and there is a risk that employees will find it harder to negotiate at the enterprise level, particularly in the smaller enterprises where they may feel they are putting their jobs at risk,” adds Verzeletti.

“With this article there is a risk that enterprises will favour the lowest standards for workers,” warns Éric, a student taking part in the demonstrations.

Laurent Berger, leader of the CFDT, on the other hand, says: “Enterprise agreements are being given priority not to lower standards for employees but to provide them with a more suitable and effective response…The unions will consolidate their bargaining power to respond to workers’ concerns at a level closer to their daily reality,” writing in the Parisien newspaper.

Whatever the reasoning, the government refused to compromise on this fundamental measure, using Article 49.3, despite the risk of turning public opinion against it.

The opposing unions, CGT and FO, believe the government’s determination to pass the measure into law, whatever the cost, may be due to “EU pressure” to introduce structural reforms into the labour market.

“The governments of Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Belgium have introduced similar policies. The same social conservative logic is applied to bring down labour costs and create more precarious employment as a solution to mass unemployment,” says Veyrier.

Some believe the government’s strong stand on this might also be for other reasons: the risk of terrorist attacks, the desire to not lose face to “rebels” within the government majority, and finally, to quickly forget the failed attempts to reform the law on withdrawing nationality.

With less than a year to go to the presidential elections, the government has taken another gamble. Whether it pays off or not will only be known when the results from the ballot box are announced.


This story has been translated from French.