French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri staunchly defended the government’s contested labour reform bill yesterday as it finally reached parliament after sparking two months of mass protests.
The government says the bill is designed to unlock France’s rigid labour market and cut stubbornly high unemployment of around 10% – the issue that has dogged Socialist President Francois Hollande’s four years in power.
But since March, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around France have demonstrated against what they see as a reform weighed in favour of bosses.
In a passionate defence of the reform, the 38-year-old El Khomri said it was “necessary” and “fair”.
“I want this bill to help my country,” El Khomri said. “We can be proud of this bill.”
Hollande said the reform was a “dynamic and fair compromise”.
With 12 months to go until the presidential election, the bill is likely to be the last major piece of legislation introduced by the 61-year-old Hollande’s government.
The reform that was to have been Hollande’s signature achievement has instead brought supporters of his own Socialist Party onto the streets.
Yesterday between 1,500 and 3,000 union representatives and students staged another demonstration, this time outside the National Assembly parliament building.
Unions fear the reform will erode the cherished rights of workers on full-time contracts, while student organisations – which have been at the forefront of the protests – believe it will fail to create “real” jobs for young people.
In response to the opposition, the government has watered down its original proposals, with the result that employers are now worried.
Pierre Gattaz, the head of the employers’ federation Medef, said that the reform “will fail to create jobs”.
“In its current state, the bill really scares us,” he told RTL radio. “I would really like lawmakers to go back to the initial spirit of the bill.”
“This labour market needs to be unlocked. The whole world says so, Brussels says so and all the international organisations say so,” he said.
Police are bracing for fresh clashes with protesters during the 10 days of parliamentary debate on the bill after many of the previous demonstrations descended into violence.
Authorities believe troublemakers – the so-called “casseurs”, or breakers – have mingled with protesters to provoke clashes with riot police.
Demonstrators on the other hand blame heavy-handed police tactics for fuelling the violence.
Participation in the demonstrations reached a peak on March 31 with nearly 400,000 people on the streets.
In protests last Thursday, those numbers were 170,000.
The reform was also the central theme of the traditional May 1 workers’ march in Paris, which again saw clashes between masked protesters and police personnel.
Opposition to the bill also inspired the “Nuit Debout”, or “Up All Night” movement, which has grown to encompass a range of causes.
Among the key remaining sticking points in the bill are measures to make it easier to lay off workers in lean times, and whether employers should be allowed to shed staff if their company is doing badly in France, even if its operations abroad are successful.
Hollande continues to face opposition from within his own ranks.
A group of Socialist lawmakers complained on Monday that the package “is not in line with the reforms that one expects from a government of the left”.
“This bill is not useful for France or for the common good,” they said in a statement.
If the government fails to gather enough support for the reform, it could use a constitutional mechanism to force it through by decree without a vote, providing that opponents do not force a no-confidence vote.
The government used the tactic last year to ram through another controversial economic reform governing trading hours and the deregulation of some sectors.
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