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Protests, strikes loom as French government looks to salvage labour reforms

AFP / Fred Tanneau | A picture taken on May 24, 2012 shows a copy of the French labour code ("code du travail"), in Quimper, western France.

France's Socialist government is holding a round of negotiations this week aimed at salvaging its proposed labour reforms as it faces fierce opposition against a draft bill and the spectre of strikes and protests on Wednesday.


Prime Minister Manuel Valls reiterated that “things would move” during a first round of talks with union and business leaders on Monday, but said he would not make a decision regarding the controversial text until March 14.

Valls told the weekly Journal du Dimanche on Sunday that the draft could be "improved" but added: "What we cannot do is maintain the status quo."

The reforms, which would put almost all aspects of the country's strictly codified labour relations up for negotiation between employers and unions, have infuriated labour unions.

The Force Ouvrière (FO) union has said a revision was out of the question, repeating its demand that the proposed reforms be scrapped altogether.

"It's not one, two or a few articles that need to be modified but the entire text that won't do," Pascal Pavageau, the FO's economy point man, said on Sunday.

Rather than "negotiate the weight of the ball and the length of the chain... we call on [Valls] to withdraw this text", he said.

‘More transparency, more protection’

Unveiled in mid-February, the El Khomri law, which is named after Economy Minister Myriam El Khomri, is designed to give employers more flexibility in hiring and firing, but critics say it unduly threatens job security.

On Sunday Valls insisted: "This labour law means more transparency for businesses and more protection for employees."

When asked about rumours that he could put at stake his position in the government if the reforms are not passed, Valls said: "I never did and I will not blackmail to resign".

And he dismissed suggestions last week that the government could push the reforms through by resorting to a manoeuvre to bypass parliament, saying the law would be "brought to fruition with the necessary changes".

The prime minister faces strong opposition from the left flank of his own Socialist Party, while seven in 10 French people are opposed to the changes, according to a poll.

Unions and student groups have called for protests on Wednesday, which will coincide with work stoppages by the Paris Metro and the French national rail company SNCF over working conditions.

‘It’s a really wide ranging set of changes’

A million signatures

At 25 percent, youth unemployment in France is among the highest in Europe.

An online petition titled "Labour Law: No Thanks", initiated by 35-year-old feminist Caroline de Haas, has attracted more than a million signatures, but it is a wild card in the mix since it is unclear what will come of the initiative.

The reforms are part of efforts to combat stubbornly high unemployment in a country where many argue employers are loath to take on permanent workers because of stiff obstacles to laying them off in lean times.

Currently French companies have to justify in court plans to shed workers due to an economic downturn, a process they say makes them reluctant to hire in the first place.

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

The law would also allow employers to work around unions and negotiate working conditions such as overtime pay and maximum working hours directly with their employees.

It would also cap the total amount of damages in the event of litigation.

The proposals were initially set to be submitted to the cabinet on Wednesday, but in the face of the opposition last week this date was shifted to March 24.

France, the eurozone's second-largest economy, is under pressure from the European Commission to reduce labour costs and address its 10.3% unemployment rate.


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