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When nationalism summons Gallicism to keep foreign workers out of France

Philippe Huguen, AFP | Advocates of the "clause Molière" say it is about guaranteeing safety in the workplace.

Hoping to squeeze out foreign workers and reap electoral rewards, a number of French regions have passed a controversial rule obliging workers on building sites to speak the language of Molière.


At first glance, it looks like another of those exquisitely Gallic rows over the spelling of “oignon”, or whether to allow the abhorrent word “selfie” on French soil. But the “clause Molière”, named after the 17th-century playwright, is not about preserving the purity of the French language, or protecting it from dreary “Globish”. It is, plain and simple, about keeping French jobs for the French – or being perceived to do so.

The controversial rule, passed by the Paris region last week, requires all labourers hired on publicly funded building projects to use French as their working language. Ironically, it was included in an English-named “Small Business Act”, designed to funnel more local contracts to small French businesses.

Similar measures have already been introduced in the regions of Normandy, Hauts-de-France and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes – which, like the Paris region, are run by the conservative Les Républicains party and their centrists allies. All are now mulling the creation of special brigades tasked with patrolling building yards to check on workers’ language skills.

Pandering to the far right

Ostensibly, the clause is about guaranteeing workers’ safety – an endeavour welcomed by Jacques Chanut, the head of France’s main building industry lobby (FFB). “Workers who don’t understand safety guidelines put themselves and their colleagues at risk,” Chanut told FRANCE 24, while acknowledging his irritation at the “political turn” taken by the debate.

Is French grammar ready to hang up the 'hat'?

Advocates of the clause Molière have made no secret of its real motive: to squeeze out foreign workers who are seen as creating unfair competition for the French. Opponents say the move is illegal, and a reckless attempt to pander to far-right voters at a time when Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) is poised to score big in critical elections this spring.

Socialist lawmaker Gilles Savary has slammed a form of “electoral posturing inspired by xenophobia”. Philippe Martinez, the head of France’s leading CGT union, found it “regrettable and dangerous” that the mainstream right should be “following in the footsteps of the National Front”. The second-largest union, the CFDT, noted in a statement that “sectors like the construction industry had long acted as a vehicle for foreign workers’ integration” into French society.

Both labour organisations argued that the highly symbolic clause would fail to crack down on illegal work. They called instead for changes to EU-wide rules to ensure workers face the same conditions across the block. But that is precisely where progress has been frustratingly slow, fuelling the FN’s Brussels-bashing rhetoric.

Posted workers

At the heart of the debate lies the highly sensitive issue of “social dumping”, by which cheap workers are brought in from other countries to undercut local workers. France has been especially critical of an EU directive on so-called “posted workers”, which allows foreign firms to continue paying social contributions in their country of origin – payments that are often much cheaper than in France.

France is home to some 300,000 posted workers, half of them employed in the building sector. So far, the French government has been thwarted in its efforts to reform the directive, notably by the Eastern European countries that supply most of the posted workers. This has played into the hands of Le Pen’s far right, which wants to quit the EU and introduce a policy of “national preference” to give French workers priority access to jobs.

The idea of instituting some form of national preference has permeated parts of the mainstream right. Last year, Les Républicains lawmaker Yannick Moreau tried – and failed – to push through an amendment similar to the “clause Molière”, designed to counteract the supposed “surge” in posted workers reaching France. “We cannot just sit with our arms folded,” he told the National Assembly. “This is about saving French jobs.”

Élysée candidate shocks by speaking English

According to Le Temps, a French-language Swiss daily, the Républicains party’s candidate for the presidency, François Fillon, is considering adding such a clause to his platform. Doing so would be a “grave error”, according to his party colleague Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, who sent him a letter on Friday stressing the clause’s dangers. “It would go against fundamental EU freedoms, and amount to a retreat behind national boundaries,” she told FRANCE 24’s sister radio station, RFI.

Legal 'alibis'

A member of the European Parliament, Morin-Chartier has been working on a reform of the posted workers directive, which has been bogged down in protracted talks between member states. She says the French regions’ unilateral moves would only hinder the already complex negotiations. Furthermore, she added, “they will expose the almost 200,000 French workers posted abroad to retaliatory measures.”

In the meantime, the “clause Molière” has set the stage for high-profile legal wrangling in France. Sources at the Finance Ministry have described the measure as “racist, discriminatory and inapplicable”, adding that the ministry’s legal department is investigating the issue. Companies that employ posted workers are also expected to sue regional authorities that discriminate against them.

In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, the local prefect – appointed by the central government – has given regional authorities two months to rewrite the rule and make it compatible with French and EU law. But with immigration, unemployment and national sovereignty high up on the electoral agenda, the right is unlikely to back down from a highly publicised confrontation.

“The state is getting in the way of efforts to combat unfair competition,” said Laurent Wauquiez, the president of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, as he unveiled a special unit on Monday tasked with enforcing the “clause Molière”. “Public officials must stop hiding behind legal minutiae they then use as alibis to justify their powerlessness and inaction.”

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