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article imageFrench labour reforms: what's going to change?

By Gina DOGGETT (AFP)     Sep 22, 2017 in World

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday made good on a central campaign vow to overhaul the country's complex labour code, overriding objections from some trade unions and the hard-left opposition.

The 39-year-old centrist believes that making the job market more flexible will help drive down the unemployment rate, now at 9.6 percent, but opponents say the reforms are a gift to bosses while workers will suffer more job insecurity.

The reforms overhaul large parts of the 3,300-page labour code which details workers' rights, with some chapters dating back over a century.

- What's in the new law? -

The reforms will give small companies in particular more freedom to negotiate working conditions with their employees, rather than being bound by industry-wide collective agreements negotiated by trade unions, or the national labour code.

A cap has also been set on the amount of compensation awarded by industrial courts in cases of unfair dismissal -- a key demand of bosses who complain that lengthy and costly court cases discourage them from hiring staff in the first place.

This latter measure was one among several that were withdrawn from reforms implemented by Macron's Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande under intense pressure from the unions.

In a further concession to companies, multinationals whose French operations are struggling will find it easier to lay off staff -- even if they are making profits in other countries -- while workers made redundant will receive higher payouts.

A few changes, including a measure to streamline workers' committees, which are mandatory within large companies, will not take effect until the end of the year.

- What do the unions say? -

Philippe Martinez, the head of the most militant union, the CGT, has said the reforms give "full powers to employers" and has vowed to press ahead with a series of strikes and demos which began last week.

But the leaders of more moderate unions, including the CFDT -- the biggest private-sector union -- and the leftist Force Ouvriere have been more conciliatory and the CGT's street protests appear to be losing steam already.

Demonstrations against French labour law reform continue  but seem to be losing steam
Demonstrations against French labour law reform continue, but seem to be losing steam
CHRISTOPHE SIMON, AFP

"The future of trade unionism... is our presence within companies" rather than on the streets, the head of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, said Thursday protests organised by the CGT.

In parliament, the opposition to the changes is led by the radical France Unbowed party of leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, which is planning a mass march in Paris on Saturday.

The right and centre-left parties in parliament have broadly backed the reforms.

- What's at stake for Macron? -

Macron resorted to executive orders -- with the blessing of a parliament dominated by his Republic on the Move (LREM) party -- in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the months-long, sometimes violent protests unleashed by Hollande's labour reforms last year.

But the changes come as the former investment banker's approval ratings have plunged, with recent polls showing that only around 40 percent of French voters are satisfied with his performance.

Protesters have seized upon Macron's dismissal of opponents to his reform as "slackers", with slogans such as "Watch out, Macron, the slackers are in the street".

The president is hoping the changes will incite companies to hire more, while also encouraging foreign investors who have long been put off by France's powerful unions and restrictive labour law.

The reform is also crucial to his wider plans for the European Union: he wants German cooperation in making institutional changes to the 28-member bloc.

He believes that improving French competitiveness is a necessary first step to build trust in Berlin and restart the Franco-German motor which has driven integration on the continent.

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