Human Rights

France: Hollande, union strikes and Les Bleus

The current deadlock is the very cause of the subpar economic results in France over the past 30 years.

A protester holds a flare during a national demonstration against the Labour law reform in Paris, France [EPA]

Since the start of the European Football Championship in France, the home team has collected a series of late rallies and comebacks from behind, offering much-needed enthusiasm and concord in the country.

Indeed, earlier this month, yet another police officer was assassinated with his life partner by an extremist. 

And as if the latent fear of terrorism was not enough to trouble the peaceful conscience of a population still traumatised by the attacks last November, Paris has recently been affected by both historical floods and a long conflict between workers’ unions and the government over labour laws.

Inside Story - France's paralysing strikes

If natural hazards were swiftly contained in the streets of Paris despite damages that should exceed a billion euros, the never-ending strike movement is hampering the already slow economic recovery in France.

This week, the French government again met representatives from the workers' unions. After hours of tense discussion, Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri, whose reforms have been under fire since mid-February, could only admit the continuous incapacity to build consensus.

Position of weakness

Article 2 of the law project remains the heart of the disagreement, as it would fundamentally change the philosophy of labour regulation negotiations and the balance of power between employers and workers' unions.

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This specific part of the reform would seal the primacy of negotiations at the company level between employees and their boss above traditional labour regulations currently agreed on at branch level for all industries of the sector.

The existing framework for labour rights negotiations was established in 1973 at a time when international competition, need for flexibility and telecommunications were non-existent.

Workers' unions claim that employees would then be in a position of weakness in fear of losing their job. But in truth this is a short-sighted perspective. The labour market in France has not been reformed in depth for more than 40 years.

The existing framework for labour rights negotiations was established in 1973 at a time when international competition, need for flexibility and telecommunications were non-existent.

Ironically enough, the two recent attempts to modernise labour laws in France were carried out by Alain Juppe (in 1995) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2006 and 2010), the two candidates likely to face Francois Hollande in next year's presidential elections.

Both backed down in front of demonstrations and now urge the current government to accrue political momentum.

Yet this reform is direly needed to build on the recent good results of the French economy.

As long as negotiations are made between competing labour and employers' establishments, they will be based on ideological agendas and far from the pragmatism needed to ensure economic competitiveness.

France is characterised by a structural unemployment problem and a large share of workers hired in temporary second-level jobs with little hope of being promoted to the long-term contracts currently defended by the Unions.

A man burns a flare during a demonstration of French rail workers in front of the French employers' union MEDEF's building, Lyon, France [AP]

Subpar economic results

As a result, there is a fracture in the workforce between those demonstrating to preserve their high level of job security and a young generation who will never be able to enjoy those privileges until some flexibility is introduced.

The current deadlock and incapacity from unions and employers to agree on reforms is the very cause of the subpar economic results in France over the past 30 years.

The work climate is horrendous in French companies, with employees reporting record lows in job satisfaction surveys.

Job mobility is relatively rare and employees are often sidelined when they have not adapted to the new tasks their company has to take on, thus preventing new hires.

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By maintaining negotiations at branch level, the government would sign for another era of stalling talks between employers' representatives. Both sides are to blame and the violent demonstrations, which led to the damaging of a children hospital by embedded anarchists groups last week, will prevent any advances.

On the one hand, employers have repeatedly shown their lack of cooperation and willingness to cash in on any governmental incentives instead of increasing the number of hires.

On the other, the leading union - the CGT - is eager to showcase its strength and adamancy ahead of upcoming union elections.

Democracy within companies

The current reform would allow a level of democracy within companies that should benefit both employers and workers.

The crisis also carries significant political ramifications. While Sarkozy and Juppe hope to build on the turmoil for their presidential run, the real winner will be Marine Le Pen.

In line with her populist strategy, she points at the violence in the streets to call for more security while at the same time playing with workers' frustration. She is thus able to gather support from both sides of the conflict and has everything to gain from a worsening of the situation.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Francois Hollande probably hopes that, just as the French national football team secured two late victories after a long sloppy display, he will be able to rally support in the last few months.

His bet is that passing a reform that none of his opponents could achieve and benefiting from the ensuing increase in economic growth will help him prevail in the upcoming presidential elections against all expectations.

However, a fast resolution of the conflict is mandatory to maintain his last dwindling hopes.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera