French labour law reform: anatomy of a political fiasco

On Monday February 29th the prime minister Manuel Valls announced that the government was postponing for two weeks the formal presentation of a new bill reforming employment law. This concession came after days of vociferous opposition to the bill from trade unions, students and many members of France's ruling Socialist Party itself who see the measure as an attack on workers' rights. Mediapart's Lénaïg Bredoux, Rachida El Azzouzi, Mathilde Goanec and Mathieu Magnaudeix analyse how what was intended to be a flagship government reform went so badly wrong.

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The idea was that with Manuel Valls at the helm as prime minister there would be no more political clangers from the French government. But the calamitous handling of the executive's planned workplace law reforms proves otherwise. This proposed legislation on “new protections for businesses and employees”, to give it its official name, was supposed to be the most ambitious reform of the end of President François Hollande's five-year term of office that terminates in 2017. The president himself sees it as a first step in a “new social model”.

Yet within the space of ten days the whole legislative edifice collapsed into a political heap. First of all the prime minister twisted the arm of employment minister Myriam El Khomri, in charge of negotiations with the various social parties involved, to suggest that the government would be prepared to force the bill through Parliament; and this before other government ministers had even seen the text. Parliamentarians, members of the public and trade unionists then discovered than within the text itself were plans to make employment more flexible in a way that would delight the liberal Right. Since then the protests have grown in scale with the announcement of a spontaneous strike on March 9th, an appeal for students to take to the streets and the massive success of an online petition that has attracted around 900,000 signatures opposing the bill.Faced with this, on Monday February 29th prime minister Valls gave a little ground. Under pressure from the Socialist Party (PS) leadership and the CFDT trade union in particular to “rebalance” the bill, he announced a postponement of the presentation of the text to ministers, which will now take place after “bilateral meetings” and discussion with social partners, in other words employers and trade unions. Ministers had been due to discuss the bill on March 9th, but following the postponement this will now take place on March 24th. It will probably not be debated at the National Assembly until the end of April.