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France delays unveiling controversial labour reform

Miguel Medina, AFP | French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visits the Paris agriculture fair on February 29, 2016

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has delayed presenting a bill to reform France’s labour laws following angry reactions from unions, students and even members of his own Socialist Party.

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Valls said on Monday he would host talks with unions and other groups to better explain the text he said had been hampered by “misunderstandings”, but insisted the government was not abandoning the controversial measures.

"Probably over the next week I will meet with all social partners, labour unions and employers' organisations, one by one," Valls told reporters at the annual Paris agricultural fair.

Initially floated in mid-February, the reforms are designed to make France’s labour market more flexible, allowing companies to lay off workers more easily.

The government says they will make France more competitive, and help tackle record unemployment in a country where companies hesitate to hire permanent workers because firing them can be a long and expensive process.

Valls and Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri were scheduled to formally present the text to cabinet ministers for their approval on March 9, before a parliamentary debate and a vote this spring.

The bill will now be unveiled to ministers on March 24, AFP quoted a government source as saying.

Fault lines

In a rare show of unity, leading French workers and student unions met last week to denounce the labour reforms, calling for a massive, nationwide strike on March 9.

An online petition demanding that El Khomri abandon the project had been signed by more than 785,000 people by Monday afternoon.

Critics say the measures would effectively dismantle job guarantees for workers, forcing employees to accept longer hours for the same or less pay. Or allow employers to quickly fire staff if they refuse.

Currently French companies have to justify in court plans to shed workers due to an economic downturn, a process they have complained makes it difficult and expensive to trim staff when the economy slows.

The reform spells out simple conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses as sufficient cause for firing workers.

The bill also provides more room for companies to reach agreements with their staff on working conditions – including on maximum working hours and overtime pay – without the need to negotiate with France’s powerful unions.

Grumbling has also come from within the ruling Socialist Party, with some members publicly lamenting a shift toward pro-business policies under Valls.

Lille Mayor Martine Aubry on February 24 warned the reform would lead to “France’s long-term weakness”, and over the weekend said she was ready to quit the Socialist Party’s executive committee.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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