Without a minute’s hesitation, Cathy Le Gac swapped her nurse’s frock for a leather jacket and a good pair of walking shoes. She, together with her colleagues from a Paris hospital, was determined to take part in the 12 September demonstration against the labour law reforms.
“It is contempt,” she says with bitterness. “Contempt for employees, for workers… class-based contempt.”
Like Cathy, thousands of workers, students and activists joined marches in several towns across France to denounce the executive orders aimed at making it easier to dismiss workers and reforming ‘social dialogue’ within companies.
The mobilisation, led by the CGT union, rallied over 400,000 people nationwide according to its organisers; 223,000 according to the Interior Ministry.
Between 24,000 and 60,000 demonstrators, depending on the source, took to the streets of Paris, under a tide of flags and banners, to the sound of chants and rousing speeches.
The main focus of their criticism was President Emmanuel Macron, who was confronted with his first mass protest since he took office in May.
The French president – whose approval ratings have been falling in the wake of revelations such as his €26,000 makeup bill (US$31,000), run up in just three months, and the clumsy management of certain issues – recently declared that he would “make no concessions, not to slackers, nor to cynics, nor to extremes”.
Demonstrators were quick to turn his words into their rallying cry, carrying placards with “Slackers of the world, unite!” or “The slackers are ‘on the move’ against the labour law” – mocking Macron’s party, En Marche.
Behind the display of good humour, the mood is serious.
“This reform will do nothing to promote peaceful labour relations,” says Avi Bitton, a lawyer specialised in employment law, wearing his black gown. “It is going to have repercussions on family life, on the political life of the country, and life in society. It risks destabilising French society.”
“A sexist law”
Already under François Hollande, reforms affecting the labour legislation had sparked angry protests. During the presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron promised to press ahead with the measures launched by his predecessor, pledging to bring unemployment down from 9.8 to 7 per cent by the end of his five-year term, in 2022.
According to the government, the executive orders are essential, because “our labour law no longer fully corresponds to the economic realities linked to globalisation, to the diversity of companies and sectors (…). It is a source of rigidity and inequalities that stifle initiative and the hiring of workers.”
Critics of the French labour law have been denouncing its complexity for decades and take pleasure in appearing in front of cameras mockingly comparing the 3000-page tome with its equivalents from other countries, which are not much thicker than a fashion catalogue.
But for many in France, the law is seen as a safeguard against arbitrariness in the world of work. Six out of ten French people say they are opposed to the current reforms.
The employment tribunal compensation cap, mergers of workplace representative bodies, the economic redundancy perimeter… hidden behind these convoluted terms is a simple economic philosophy, inspired by entrepreneurial thought: by making it easier to dismiss employees, by weakening trade unions, employers will hire more workers and unemployment will fall.
“False!” retorts Alexandre, a demonstrator who works as a chartered accountant. “Bosses hire when there is work. If they don’t have work, they won’t hire, even if it is easier to sack people.”
“The executive orders are focused on firing workers, not hiring them. I don’t see how that will help people find work.”
At the march in Paris, Sophia, who describes herself as a “feminist and activist”, holds up a placard that reads, “The labour law, a sexist law”.
She denounces, more specifically, the inversion of the hierarchy of norms: the fact that agreements negotiated at company level will take precedence over branch agreements. The latter, negotiated by sector-wide representatives, are more advantageous than the national provisions.
But by authorising companies to impose less favourable conditions than those established for the sector where they operate, the reform, according to the CGT, is likely to encourage “social dumping, by heightening the competition between SMEs and their employees. That will worsen the social insecurity within these companies, which increasingly find themselves at the beck and call of their customers.”
In companies with fewer than 20 employees, the director will be able to negotiate directly with employees on all matters, including working hours, pay, bonuses and working conditions, without having to go through a staff representative. For companies with 20 to 50 employees, negotiations will have to be held with a representative who has been elected, but not necessarily linked to a trade union.
For Annabelle Chassagnieux, a consultant with the CHSCT (health, safety and working conditions committee): “The already unequal balance of power will be tipped even more in favour of employers. They issue orders as if there was a balanced dialogue between people speaking from the same level. But there is an imbalance of power in meetings between trained human resource managers and employees. Refusing to acknowledge that this imbalance exists is a mockery.”
“Employment relationships are becoming ever more individualised and there is more competition between employees. Measures like these will only succeed in alienating the most fragile groups,” she tells Equal Times.
For fear of not having their contracts renewed, the employees with the least job security, such as those on fixed-term contracts, will be hard-pressed to challenge the conditions imposed by the company. And women are overrepresented when it comes to employment on fixed-term contracts and in SMEs.
Feminist organisations also fear that the family rights established in branch agreements will be challenged, such as those linked to maternity leave or time off when children fall ill.
In an increasingly competitive economy, and in light of the performance-based business trend, the most likely outcome is covert discrimination, with a progressive ousting of women and the most vulnerable employees.
“This law impoverishes women,” concludes Sophia.
The cap on compensation from employment tribunals is another affront, in the eyes of the protesters. Previously, if an employee was unfairly dismissed, that is, without real or serious grounds, it was up to the judges to set the level of compensation based on the estimated damages. In future, these payouts will be capped, so that employers know exactly what it will cost them to unfairly dismiss an employee.
The justification given by the government for this measures is that uncertainty over the cost of such dismissals discourages the recruitment of employees. The cap, it argues, provides foreseeability, which allows uncertainty to be removed and unfetters job creation in the country.
Employers have long been pressing for such a measure, raising the spectre of bankruptcy when former employees sue them for damages, but for Yann Gillet, a trade unionist in the steel industry, the cap is a travesty.
“Unfair dismissal is unfair dismissal! It is illegal, against the law. How can a price tag be put on it, if it’s against the law?”
In return, the unions have managed to get severance pay for legal dismissals raised by 25 per cent: perhaps the only concession made to employees in the various executive orders.
Employers united, trade unions divided
Despite favourable reports on the reforms in some national and international media outlets – such as the New York Times, which went as far as to describe France’s labour legislation as “cumbersome, obtuse and harmful” and to encourage the government “to stay the course” – many French media outlets consider the measures to be clearly bent in favour of employers.
Even the presenter of the France 2 television news programme, Julian Bugier, struggled to hide his exasperation when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the executive orders.
After reminding the prime minister of his own comment that “the labour law is not the primary cause of unemployment in France”, the journalist asked him whether it was not a form of dishonesty to lead people to believe that business will pick up again as the labour market becomes more flexible, underlining that the reforms “respond point-by-point to the longstanding demands of MEDEF” – the French business confederation.
The president of MEDEF, Pierre Gattaz, referred to the measures as “an important and interesting stage which could help to raise the confidence of business leaders”.
Likewise, the confederation of small and medium-sized enterprises has welcomed the reforms’ pragmatism, “which matches the reality on the ground, without in any way undermining the balance employees need in terms of security”.
One provision that was particularly well-received in business circles was the reduction of “the scope for assessing economic grounds (for dismissals) to the national level”.
Multinationals will no longer have to prove a lack of profitability in the group as a whole to be able to make redundancies in France. The economic position of the French subsidiary alone will be sufficient to justify the launch of collective redundancies.
Trade union organisations wasted no time in denouncing this accounting device, warning against fiscal trickery that makes it possible to artificially downgrade the financial health of a subsidiary so that staff cuts can be made.
This favour granted to multinationals comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the past of the texts’ main architects. They include the employment minister, Muriel Pénicaud, former executive vice president for the agribusiness giant Danone, Edouard Philippe, former director at the energy multinational Areva, and Macron, a former investment banker at Rothschild.
The executive’s announcement of new fast-track reforms in the areas of training, pensions and unemployment insurance already has trade unions grinding their teeth. But, undermined by the rivalries within the union movement and low membership levels (around 10 per cent), labour organisations are struggling to take a united stand to block the advance of “Macronism”.
The CFDT, France’s biggest union, did not call on workers to join the mobilisation on Tuesday, although it has described the executive orders as “profoundly disappointing”.
In Paris, just a small delegation of CFDT members from the steel industry was visible at the march. “I think there is a lot of individualism and ego on all sides,” says trade unionist Yann Gillet, with an air of despondency.
Nor did Force Ouvrière (FO) call on its members to walk alongside the CGT. And it has already announced that it will not join the call for the forthcoming mobilisation, scheduled for 21 September – the eve of the Council of Ministers meeting at which the executive orders will be adopted.
The FO’s departmental unions and federations will very probably join the movement nonetheless, as was the case on 12 September.
“Our national executive conducted an analysis regarding the consultations and concluded that it had achieved positive results,” explains Gabriel Gaudy, FO general secretary for Île-de-France.
“But having taken part in 14 demonstrations to fight against the El Khomri law, I don’t feel I can stand on the sidelines now whilst my comrades take action.”
Though convinced that the very foundations of trade unions are under attack, he nevertheless feels that demonstrations alone are not enough and that “the fight must be kept up inside the workplace”.
It could take some convincing. The vast majority of French workers did not respond to the call for strike action, and the extent of the social discontent remains relatively low, in comparison with what France has seen in the past.
“I think the fear of increased insecurity is still there, but there is also a degree of fatalism. We tell ourselves that it could have been worse,” explains Alexandre, the chartered accountant.
“That’s what’s a shame: we take steps backward, supposedly to avoid the worst. But there comes a time when we can no longer back down.”