During the last months, France is facing different tensions linked to the reform of the French Labor Code proposed by the Socialist Party Minister of Labor, Myriam el Khomri, and supported by the Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the President of the Republic François Hollande. In particular, in view of Presidential elections of 2017, the reform is particularly risky for the incumbent President Hollande: his attempt to make an historical change at the end of his mandate revealed itself to be a double-edged sword. The social protest that the government has now to face is indeed dividing not only the country, but also the Socialist party.[1] To respond to the critics, François Hollande declared that he is not going to run for re-election, if the unemployment rate will not drop at the end of the year.[2]

A long and uneasy path

On 17 February, the Minister El Khomri proposed the first draft of the Loi Travail (Labor Law) or El Khomri Law,  named after the Minister herself. With the aim to decrease the unemployment rate that since 2012 is more or less stable around 10%[3] (twice as high as in Germany) the reform did not get the support the government expected. On the contrary, trade unions, as the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), and student associations started a harsh protest in the streets. The paradox that the French government had indeed to face was that, even if the majority of French are in favor of a reform of the Labor Law, 70% of them are against the way in which the government is dealing with it.[4]

Facing the high tension in the streets, the Prime Minister Valls decided to postpone the presentation of the text to the National Assembly from 9 to 14 March. In this way, he bought himself some time to make changes to the text in collaboration with social partners and Socialist deputies. But while the government was celebrating a pragmatic and ambitious reform, result of a compromise between the parties, at the same time, on March 9th, around 9,500,000 people participated in a national day of protests against the El Khomri Law.

The final draft[5] of the law was thus presented and registered at the National Assembly on 24 March. The reviewed text, however, did not turn down people dissatisfaction. In fact, on 31 March, another widespread protest took place in Place de la République in Paris. In such occasion, the socialist movement Nuit Debout[6] (that could be translated in English as “Standing Night”) stood out of the protest, presenting itself as one of the main counter-reform movement. Since that day, despite the ban on gatherings – included in the “state of emergency” in which France is after the Paris attacks of last November–, nightly assembly are organized in the same square.

According to French legislation, after 6 weeks from the registration of a projet de loi (law draft) at the National Assembly, it needs to be put in the order of the day to be discussed and examined by the deputies. Normally, in such occasion, the Assembly would need to vote article by article and on the overall text. However, on the designated day, the Prime Minister Valls decided to resort to the article 49.3 of the French Constitution,[7] letting, in this way, the text passing without the need of the Parliament vote. This was not the first time that a Prime Minister resort to this article to overpass a dispute between the parliament and the government: since 1958 it was in fact already been used other 24 times. This move was although not appreciated by the protesters, that saw it just as a tool used by the executive to impose its primacy.[8]

The same article considers also a motion de censure, motion of censure, that can be presented within 24 hours since the government registered the text. And that is what les frondeurs, a group of Socialist deputies against the El Khomri Law, tried to do without being able to reach the threshold of signature needed to present a left-wing motion against the government.[9] It is interesting to notice that among the 56 signatures that they collected, 28 were of Socialist deputies. Thus, the text in which the government engaged its responsibility passed on 12 May.

The text however is still not to be considered as the final one. The Senate will need, starting from 13 June, to examine it and to decide whether to change it – in this case the Assembly will need to vote the final text proposed by the Senate – or to vote it without further modifications.[10]

Loi Travail: most debated points

The most debated points of the Loi Travail proposed by the government are: a longer working time, an easier layoff policy and a reversing of the hierarchies.

Starting from the working time, the actual law establishes 10 working hours per day. These hours can be raised up to 12 only in particular situation specified by an administrative. On the other hand, article 3 of the new text permits to pass from 10 to 12 working hours per day with a simple agreement within the enterprise and its trade union, for a maximum of 46 hours per week for 16 weeks. In addition, extra working hours, that are now remunerated 25% more for the first 8 hours and 50% more for the next ones, with the reformed law could be paid by the enterprise only up to 10% more, making no differences between different professional sectors even if they were entitled of a higher increase.[11]

El Khomri Law also eliminates the damages for unfair dismissal and simplifies layoff procedures. With the current Labor Code, in the case of an unjustified layoff, the worker is entitled to receive, as minimum, the equivalent of 6 months of salary for damages. This rule is applicable to all enterprises with more than 10 paid employees and for employees who have more than 2 years of seniority: the reform would remove this regulation. Moreover, if an enterprise sells all or just a part of its activity, the employees are currently kept and the working contracts are automatically transferred to the buying company. With the introduction of article 41 of the projet de loi, the buying company is allowed to choose to keep only a part of the previous employees, while it can fire the other.[12]

Finally, one of the most sensitive problem raised by the Loi Travail is the change in the hierarchy of the norms. In fact, according to the new text, an agreement stipulated at a company-level will have the primacy over the Labour Code, while traditionally it has been the opposite.  This provision frighten trade unionists, because, as stated by the leader of the CGT, Phillipe Martinez, “this law […] allows each company to have its own labor code.”[13] Considering that only 8% of French workers belongs to trade unions, such reversed hierarchy would highly penalize not represented employees giving a bigger leverage and power to enterprises.

Conclusions

The points touched in this analyses are only few in respect of all the reformed procedures proposed by Valls government. But, those three points are so vital, to let opponents arguing that the reform proposed by the government is a step back in terms of workers’ rights. The fear is that enterprises would have a predominant power that might be used to safeguard their own interests, instead of workers’ ones. Even if these critics are not shared by all, people dissatisfaction is real and it inflames social movements.

Indeed, fierce protests interesting all sectors keep the country in the chaos: last week they involved oil refineries, nuclear power plants, while this week they  interest transport hubs (trains – SNCF, metro – RATP and airports). Those strikes in combination with the terrorist threat and the “state of emergency” risk also to decrease the tourist flows expected for the 2016 European Football Championship hosted in France from 10  June to 10 July. However, the government and the President remain determined in pushing through the reform. A reversal of their decisions is off the table..

The upcoming weeks will be thus essential in defining the future of France and its President. The continuing protests are, indeed, eroding Hollande’s as well as France’s image. In particular, the disagreement within the Socialist Party could leave the door open in the 2017 Presidential elections to the Front National of Marie Le Pen, which is threatening more and more to affirm itself as a mainstream party in the country.

Federica Sola

Master’s Degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


References and notes

[1] This situation is not new for France: it is not, in fact, the first time that a President tries to make passing a structural reform at the end of his mandate provoking widespread protests. That was for example the case of the pension reform that Sarkozy proposed at the end of his mandate in 2010.

[2] Chrisafis, A. “‘End of term’ protests threaten François Hollande’s labour legacy,” The Guardian, March 9, 2016. www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/09/end-of-term-protests-threaten-francois-hollande-labour-legacy

[3] The unemployment rate picked at 10.6% in 2014, the highest level reached in the last twenty-years. In particular, the youth unemployment rate stands around 24%.

[4] According to a survey conducted by the French polling institute Odoxa for the French newspaper Le Parisien. See: www.leparisien.fr/politique/sondage-70-des-francais-opposes-a-la-loi-el-khomri-05-03-2016-5601351.php

[5] The text of the law is available at: www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/pdf/projets/pl3600.pdf.

[6] For more information, see: nuitdebout.fr

[7] French Constitution, Title V, Article 43. See: www.assemblee-nationale.fr/connaissance/constitution.asp#titre_5

[8] For more information, see: Bruel, B. “Qu’est-ce que l’article 49.3 ?,” Le Monde, 10 May 2016. www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2016/05/10/qu-est-ce-que-l-article-49-3_4916730_4355770.html

[9] The text of the “Motion de censure des gauches et écologistes” is available at: www.scribd.com/doc/312269162/Motion-de-censure-de-gauche

[10] For more information, see: “Fiche de synthèse n°32: La procédure legislative,” Assemblée Nationale, 28 April 2014. ww2.assemblee-nationale.fr/decouvrir-l-assemblee/role-et-pouvoirs-de-l-assemblee-nationale/les-fonctions-de-l-assemblee-nationale/les-fonctions-legislatives/la-procedure-legislative

[11] “Working nine to four,” The Economist, March 5, 2016. www.economist.com/news/europe/21693985-socialists-are-torn-over-move-dismantle-35-hour-week-working-nine-four

[12] For more information, see: loitravail.lol

[13] Birch, J. “A French Spring: popular protests have erupted against efforts to dismantle France’s labor code,” Jacobin, 28 April 2016. www.jacobinmag.com/2016/04/france-labor-code-hollande-nuit-debout/