Nationwide protests over labour reform

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We are facing a wave of protests against deeply unpopular labour reforms that have divided an already fractured Socialist government and raised hackles in a country accustomed to iron-clad job security.

Youth organisations and unions are protesting across France on the same day as a rail strike over a wage dispute that is set to cause transport chaos.

The government has faced massive blowback – including from within – to measures that would give bosses more flexibility in hiring and firing, in a bid to turn around a record 10.2 percent unemployment rate.

An online petition against the El Khomri draft law, named after Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, has attracted more than a million signatures while a poll showed seven in 10 people were opposed to the proposed changes.

President Francois Hollande said on the eve of the protests that France needed to take time to consult on the proposals. “The responsibility has been mine for four years now to take the decisions that will enable young people to have more job stability,” he said on a visit to Venice. “We must also give companies the opportunity to recruit more, to give job security to young people throughout their lives, and to provide flexibility for companies.”

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday kicked off three days of talks with unions in a bid to salvage the law, after the chorus of opposition derailed a plan to submit the proposals to the cabinet this week.

The turmoil created by the proposals has struck yet another blow to Hollande and Valls, who have come under attack from leading members of the Socialist party for being too pro-business and shifting to the right.

Valls had to force a series of economic reforms through parliament last year over fears party rebels would sink the bill.

Just 14 months away from presidential elections in which Hollande is expected to seek a second term in power, the president’s popularity has fallen to its lowest level yet.

Those in favour of the reforms believe they are essential to reviving a stagnant economy, creating jobs and remaining competitive, and El Khomri has argued that a lot of the opposition to her law is the result of misinformation and false rumours.

Outspoken Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with France Inter radio that unemployment had not dropped below seven percent in 30 years.

“Have we tried everything? Let us look outside France. What has happened elsewhere? They have all evolved, they have all done things,” he said.

Le Parisien newspaper looked at similar reforms in Spain, Italy and Britain and said in an editorial that France’s labour code was “not adapted to our era”.

“Denying the need to reform is to deny that the world around us is moving, that our social system is on its last legs and unemployment is not budging,” it said.

Currently French employers are loath to take on permanent workers because of stiff obstacles to laying them off in lean times.

Young people leaving university find themselves working temporary contracts for years at a time or doing internship after internship while hoping to secure a job.

The reforms spell out simple conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses, as sufficient cause for shedding staff.

They would also cut overtime pay for work beyond 35 hours – the work week famously introduced in the 1990s in an earlier Socialist bid to boost employment.

However while Valls has said it is the young who most stand to benefit from the law, youth organisations have been among the most vocal in calling for the complete scrapping of the plan.

High school pupils took part in a youth protest on Wednesday alongside unions, ecologist movements and university students.