France erupts in defiance of employer-friendly labour reforms

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France is continuously rocked by debates around the meaning of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity that predate the French Revolution.

Some important notions are widely shared. Most French citizens expect governments to meet the basic needs of all and promote individual expansion of talents and abilities.

It is generally agreed France should offer educational, cultural and recreational facilities to every child.

How the Enlightenment ideals should apply in the workplace is a matter of fierce dispute.

Unlike Canada, the U.K. or the U.S., France has not consistently favoured employers over labour.

Rather than forcing trade unions to win concessions from companies, the French state has legislated employment protection for labour.  Resenting this, employer associations work continuously to reverse constraints on business.

Today, French society is convulsed by confrontations between police and citizens protesting against reforms to employment law. For over two months, major cities have been the scene of mass demonstrations. Students have put their schools under occupation.

In Paris, La Place de la République with its statue of Marianne -- symbol of French values -- is occupied by young protesters in Nuit Debout (Up All Night), echoing May '68 with a call to put imagination into power.

French citizens expect legally protected job security. Employers' rights to dismiss employees are strictly curtailed by laws approved by Gaullist and Socialist governments. The workweek is limited to 35 hours. Overtime pay and workplace benefits are legislated, not subject to negotiation.

Saying it wants to reduce unemployment, the French Socialist government drew up legislation to weaken employment protection. The governments wants to make reforms that would see hours worked go up, make job termination simpler, and facilitate creation of insecure jobs for young workers. About 70 per cent of the population is opposed to these reforms.

A series of rotating strikes is occurring this week in transport sectors to protest the French Socialists' use of special powers to ram employment law reform through the National Assembly, without it being subject to a vote.

The French Socialist government argues that employers need to know they can fire workers in order to hire them. The public reaction is that the law will facilitate moving jobs offshore.

Business profits represent the difference between what workers are paid and what they produce for the employer. This is why employers try to pay workers as little as possible, and in France, as elsewhere, have been delocalizing production.

When replacing nationals with cheaper workers abroad is not enough, there is always the reserve army of the domestically unemployed to keep wages in line.

Many of the ideas about freeing up the so-called labour market peddled by the OECD, and embedded in European Commission policies, have been accepted by the Socialist government of François Hollande.

Conventional economics talks about the labour "market," and envisages wages and salaries being set by bids in a competitive situation, where neither sellers (workers) or buyers (employers) can control the outcome.

Making the world conform to supply and demand diagrams is at odds with the French Enlightenment tradition. People need to work to live and fluctuating prices for work are incompatible with meeting human needs in a sustainable fashion.

Karl Polanyi referred to labour in a capitalist society as one of three fictitious commodities (the others being money and land).

What people do for a living is not something to be negotiated daily through sealed bids. Workers are not so many potatoes being bought and sold at the morning market.

In the work world, contracts, not flexible prices, govern employment.

In some instances, self-governing associations set professional employment standards for their own membership. Trade unions negotiate contracts for work and social benefits. Unorganized workers fare poorly unless protected by national laws.

In reality, businesses control employment creation, and want to throw out French law which requires them to respect Enlightenment values. Private business owners think freedom grows through the exercise of private property rights.

Arguments about the need to reduce wages run up against support for equality and solidarity. French citizens mobilize on the streets. What little credibility remained is being taken from the French Socialists by marches against them across the country.

The French Socialist government has failed to crack the unemployment problem, and by adopting the arguments of its right-wing opponents has discredited itself with its own supporters.

Social solidarity requires investing in each other's capacities to create, produce and invent for daily life. Employment conditions need to be measured by workers themselves. How much freedom to get on with their lives do citizens enjoy?

Duncan Cameron is former president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Nicolas Vigier/flickr

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