With his ratings in freefall, the neoliberal standard-bearer unveils his labour law ‘reforms’ against a swelling tide of anger
In the French school calendar, September’s start is the ‘rentrée’ – the return to studies and sombre, disciplined confinement after the liberation of the long summer break. Beyond the school gates, there’s a generalised sense of coming down to earth, of reengaging with issues and challenges as the days shorten and summer pleasures fade.
This September, there’s a charge in the early autumn air, a sense of something big brewing.
Over at the Elysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron is busy gauging reactions to ‘reforms’ to the Code de Travail, the French labour law, unfurled by his hard Right prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on August 31. The same day saw the youthful head of state descend from Mount Olympus long enough to give an extended interview to the magazine Le Point. Acknowledging the “impatience of the people” at the end of his first 100 days in office, Macron denied he was Jupiter, described his labour reforms as geared to “liberating energies”, dangled the promise of an educational “revolution”(where have we heard that one before?), and prescribed “heroism” as the antidote to terrorism.
Alas for the ‘miracle man’, the latest polls suggest that these nuggets have done little to slow, let alone reverse, the emphatic downward thrust of his popularity ratings. According to a YouGov France poll for HuffPost and CNEWS published on September 4, Macron now has an approval rating of just 30%: down from 43% at the end of June and 36% in late July. It’s difficult to exaggerate how dismal these figures are. Even Francois Hollande, widely acknowledged as France’s least effective head of state of recent years, managed to command a 46% approval rating at the same point in his presidency.
For Macron, much now hinges on the response to his labour law proposals: the 36 measures to be presented as ordinances to the French National Assembly for rubber stamping later this month. These target three central axioms of the existing Code de Travail: (1) the primacy of sector-level agreements governing workers’ rights and conditions; (2) rules governing redundancy procedures, including those relating to labour tribunals; and (3) the central role of unions.
The enterprise rules, okay?
The first prong of Macron’s assault on French workers involves discarding the idea that agreements on wages, conditions and entitlements should apply across a given sector. Instead, individual enterprises will be given the freedom to ‘negotiate’ their own agreements and use new tools to bypass existing rules. Companies will also be empowered to invoke ‘competitiveness’ considerations as a means to bear down on labour; for example, in the event of a downturn, they will be free to strike rapid, ‘simplified’ deals with a union or works council to cut wages and/or working hours, or lay off staff.
In the case of international firms, the new focus means disregarding their global health when plans are afoot to lay off workers at French plants. Up till now, French judges have had the power to block lay-off plans or penalise firms by pointing out that dismissals were not justified, given the profitability of their global operations. Now, judges’ purview will be restricted to a firm’s performance in France: a major shift, given the central importance of global profitability in a series of recent disputes over company shutdowns, including at ArcelorMittal’s Florange steelworks in 2013.
Towards more ‘flexible’ redundancy
For Macron and Philippe, not to mention Labour minister Muriel Pénicaud, ‘flexibility’ is above all about greasing redundancy procedures so that workers can be fired more easily. At present there are two main forms of contract for French workers and employees: the contrat à durée indéterminée (CDI) and the contrat à durée déterminée (CDD). The permanency offered by the CDI endows it with Rolls-Royce desirability; bank loans, tenancy agreements and all forms of credit are tied into its possession. The CDD, although time-bound, also comes with specific legally guaranteed protections. Much less secure is a third category, the contrat de chantier, which ends automatically with the completion of a project. Previously restricted to the building sector, this precarious mode of employment is set to be given much broader application, to the detriment of CDD contracts. Thus far the axe has not been applied to the permanency enshrined in the CDI, but the direction of travel is clear.
Job security is further threatened by proposals to hack away at the protections offered by industrial tribunals, particularly in relation to unfair dismissal. The time threshold for contesting sackings will be cut from two years to one, and compensation payments are set for drastic reduction. Stripped of the power to judge cases on an individual basis, tribunal members will to be required to set damages according to a set scale with a fixed ceiling; for example, an employee of 30 years’ standing could expect more than the equivalent of 20 months’ salary if found to have been unfairly dismissed.
Short-circuiting the unions
As the opening gambit of a projected full-spectrum assault on the power of French organised labour, the Macron package sets its sight on union organisation within the PME sector (petite et moyenne entreprise: small and medium businesses). Businesses employing fewer than 20 people will be empowered to negotiate with ‘representatives’ who are neither elected nor union-endorsed, while those with between 20 and 50 employees will be able to negotiate deals free of union involvement. Cuts are projected for the number of union representatives and the time available for union work. From 2018, PME bosses will be able to hold referenda on projected agreements without union approval. In addition, union representatives will be required to fork out 20% of the costs of expert advice required for case work.
Goodies have also been promised to enterprises with more than 50 employees: the current threshold above which a range of democratic entitlements and protections must be applied. Up till now, a company hiring its 50th employee has had to comply with a range of requirements, including the nomination of workers’ representatives, the setting up of a works council, and the establishment of a health and safety committee. Macron’s big idea is to fold these into a single structure: a ‘social and economic council’, or CSE. The spin that this ‘simplified’ structure will operate more effectively has few takers in union circles, where the move has been correctly identified as a means to cut union representation and influence.
All out on September 12
To the extent that anything positive could emerge from its sub-Thatcherite declaration of war on the unions, the Macron package has stimulated a promising coming together of the French Left. A nationwide day of protest, set for September 12, will see formidable trade union strength on the streets and outside factories and businesses; called some weeks ago by the CGT, the mobilisation now has the backing of every trade union organisation and confederation outside the ultra-reformist, Socialist Party friendly CFDT (an attempt by the leader of Force Ouvrière, Jean-Claude Mailly, to keep his organisation aloof shows every sign of coming unstuck, such is the level of fury). Most encouraging of all is the pledge of wholehearted participation by Jean Mélenchon and La France Insoumise in what is shaping up to be a day to remember. While LFI’s own big mobilisation will go ahead in Paris on September 23, its decision to make common cause on September 12 may become a defining feature of la rentrée 2017.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.