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Protesters In France Take To Streets Over Proposed Changes To Labor Law

Published Sunday, March 13, 2016
by The New York Times

(PARIS, FRANCE) - Firing an Employee in France often means a court date, months of hearings and hefty payouts under the country’s 3,400-page Labor Code.  Employers hate the thick book, but Workers - those lucky enough to have jobs - love it.

Last week, thousands went into the streets across France to protect it, demonstrating against a new government plan to make firings slightly easier and France’s trademark shortened work-week slightly longer.

Nothing for years has so revived labor tensions - or divided the Socialist Party - as the government’s plan to overhaul the voluminous Labor Code, removing, ever so slightly, a few layers of Worker Protection.

Desperate to reduce a nearly permanent Unemployment Rate of more than 10%, the Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has risked taking a delicate paring knife to the Labor Code, a step that members of his party consider a heresy.

In doing so, Valls and his tiny reform faction have revived a conflict over labor overhauls that has already played out elsewhere in Europe’s left, but that has tormented the French Socialists ever since they took power in 2012.

Valls says he is determined to fix a “broken” French system that has left employers so fearful of long-term hires that 90% of jobs created in France last year were unstable, poorly paid and short term

“You engage yourself practically for life when you sign a contract,” said François Asselin, a businessman who heads the confederation of small- and medium-size companies in France.  “When you want to lay off an Employee, there is considerable legal and financial risk.  In France, to lay someone off, you’ve got to be totally documented, so you won’t be accused of an ‘abusive firing.’”

Valls’ departures from leftist orthodoxy, however, run the risk of breaking his own Socialist Party.  

“Why are they doing this one year away” from the election, lamented Catherine Lemorton, a Socialist Parliamentary Deputy. “This law - which ‘offends’ so much of our electorate or what’s left of it?”

Valls, pugnacious and combative, boxes in his spare time, and the law was introduced with characteristic brusqueness and little explanation.

The reaction has been explosive.

For weeks the Socialist Party’s rank and file has cried betrayal.

Hundreds of thousands have signed an on-line petition demanding that the government scrap its plan.

Deputies in Parliament have revolted.

The Unions - “it’s a return to the ninetheenth century,” grumbled one leader - have vowed to kill the plan.

One of the leading Socialist lights, the mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, who wrote France’s 35-hour work-week as a government minister, wrote a furious editorial in Le Monde, declaring: “Not this, not us, not the Left!”

Last week, as the government hunkered down to ponder its dwindling options, thousands of demonstrators - Workers, Union Officials, students - poured into the streets of the country’s cities.

The student mobilization against the plan was especially strong.

“That kind of society, we don’t want anything to do it!” read one of the student demonstration banners at the Place de la République in Paris.

This baffled government officials, who said the plan had been developed with students in mind, to open up more long-term employment and diminish exploitative short-term jobs.

“They want to make us ‘Kleenex’ Employees, throwaway employees!,” said Patricia Deschamp, an Air France Worker handing out leaflets at the big demonstration near the employers’ federation here on the Left Bank.  “We have minimal security now and we will have even less after.”

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