France's government forced to delay contested labor reform

AP News
Posted: Feb 29, 2016 10:22 AM
France's government forced to delay contested labor reform

PARIS (AP) — France's government delayed plans to water down the country's 35-hour workweek on Monday after backlash among Socialists, the far left and unions who fear reforming the stringent labor code will diminish workers' rights — and not the unemployment rate.

The highly unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande has pledged to run for re-election next year only if France's persistent 10 percent unemployment rate drops. But Hollande's plans to streamline the labor code, and provide ways for employers to organize alternative workweeks of up to 60 hours, has met fierce resistance from the left.

French reality is already there. Even government statistics show French employees work an average of 39 hours weekly, labor code notwithstanding. But the 35-hour week imposed in 2000 by a Socialist majority is widely viewed as a legislative cornerstone of the left, and Hollande has failed to rally even his own Socialists to his side.

The prime minister on Monday announced that the bill would be delayed from March 9 to March 24 to allow for more negotiations with leftist rebels, unions and employers' organizations.

The proposed bill technically maintains the 35-hour workweek, but allows companies to organize alternative working times, up to a 48-hour workweek and 12 hours per day. In case of "exceptional circumstances," employees could work up to 60 hours a week.

One measure would allow employees to work more than 35 hours without being paid overtime for a specific period of time. In exchange, they would have more days off later on. This measure is aimed at allowing companies to adapt to business booms. Other measures would ease layoffs and relax rules on working remotely from home and at night.

Companies with fewer than 50 staffers would be able to propose contracts based on the number of days worked per year instead of the 35-hour week. The system already existed but was highly restricted.

Employees could also volunteer to give up days off in exchange for more money.

"We have more than 3.5 million unemployed so I look to them. I want to convince the French," Prime Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio last week. By Monday, he acknowledged that convincing might take a little more time.

"We must clear up any misunderstanding. We must explain, respond to some false information about this text. So, let's take a few more days to engage in further discussion, to correct what is needed."

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Valls called on lawmakers to rise "above traditional divisions" in order to pass the bill.

Pierre Gattaz, head of the main employers' lobby, supports the measure. "I think this bill is headed in the right direction and could truly unlock the labor market, and therefore, create jobs", he told Les Echos newspaper.

All major employee unions oppose the bill and some have threatened strikes.

The CGT union called for a strong response against "a historic roll back of the workers' rights."

The last time the government tried a major economic reform — a law that made it easier for businesses to open on Sundays and at night — it had to invoke rarely used special powers to ram the bill through. Hollande's pro-business policy, a shift from his left-wing campaign in 2012, has caused multiple rebellions among Socialists.

Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis called for changes to the current plan, saying otherwise, he would "have difficulty voting" for the measure.