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France’s Labour Crisis Shows Little Sign of Abating

Proposed French labour reforms have led to riots and protests across the country. The protests have unleashed pent-up emotions between the state and the French people, with both protesters and the police on the receiving end of extreme anger and violence. Arousing discontent is the government’s suggested loosening of France’s strict work code rules – a source of pride for many workers across the country.

Hollande’s Socialist government has suggested lengthening the work week from 35 hours to 48 hours per week. The reforms will allow employers to hire and fire people more easily than before, sparking a fierce battle of protests, strikes and clashes on the streets of Paris and all throughout the country. On 10 May the government forced the bill through the national assembly under a State of Emergency, which allows for bills to pass without debate.

Services within France have been greatly affected by the reforms proposed by Hollande’s government. Petrol refineries have been on strike for a week, causing fuel shortages and long lines at petrol stations. Air traffic controllers and electrical workers are also striking, as well as the national railroad service and the RATP, Paris’ transportation system. The police response has been heavy handed, with some people being violently removed from the protests.

The government has justified their reforms due to the high unemployment rate of 11% as France’s strict rules prevent an easy hiring process. Germany changed their labour laws in the mid-2000s and unemployment has dropped noticeably to 4.5% since. The liberalisation of economic markets could foster economic growth, which France badly needs. However the resulting protests have done little to improve France’s economic outlook. Instead, the reforms have created a labour crisis, potentially causing a lot of damage to the world’s sixth largest economy.

It seems that neither side is willing to concede on this matter. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated, “We are not going to change the bill because then we would not be able to reform the country.” In contrast, the leader of the union responsible for the strikes retaliated, saying “We are determined to take this to the end, to have the labour law repealed”.

Although France has a long and proud history as a union stronghold, this is diminishing under Hollande’s government. Only 1 out of 8 French workers belong to a union and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) has dwindled from 4 million members in 1948 to 700,000 in 2016.

It remains to be seen how the French labour crisis will be resolved. However, with the fading power of the unions in France, it seems likely that the government will come out on top. In a poll for the Journal du Dimanche, 46% of French respondents want the law to be withdrawn, 40% want it to be modified and just 13% want the current reforms to pass. Likewise, Le Parisien conducted their own poll, where 61% said the government was responsible for the escalating nature of the strikes, while 37% said it was due to the irresponsibility displayed by radical unions.

Clearly, the country is divided, but one thing is certain: it is extremely unlikely that the government in its current form has much support in France. With the upcoming elections in 2017, it will be interesting to see if these reforms survive the next incoming government.

Zoe Meers is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Olivier Ortelpa (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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