labor reform The Last Twitches of Old France

France is changing, like it or not, and the opposition to labor market reform is a farce, writes Handelsblatt's France correspondent.
Massive protests mask bigger issues in France.


François Hollande’s five-year term is speeding to an end but it looks like the finale will be a farce.

Once more, the French president is behaving as though he were reforming the country from the bottom up.

Labor unions and students are acting like they could halt the flood of change through old-fashioned strikes, as if it were the seventies or the nineties.

An apt comment on this reality satire came from an app: “If the local train doesn’t come, download our app, we’ll come!” writes the association of alternative taxi services like Uber & Co.

The government and trade unions might be playing their games, but that doesn’t change much: France is changing. The strikes are a nuisance because they cause traffic jams but they aren't relevant, or even threatening, anymore.

What's more worrying is the silent army of excluded youths who feel the unions are as irrelevant to them as the political parties. Among these youths are where violence, criminality and terrorism thrive.

The reform isn’t wrong, just too half-hearted to stimulate the labor market.

That's not something you can say in Mr. Hollande’s France. Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron was snubbed because he was bold enough to speak the truth. Patrick Kanner, responsible in the government for cities and youth, even mentioned there were “100 neighborhoods like Molenbeek” in France, the district in Brussels that has produced many IS followers. Two hours later, the minister was forced to deny what he had said. Reality isn't necessarily welcome at the court of François Hollande.

The president will one way or another get through the year until elections in 2017, then this strange chapter will be over and done.

Mr. Hollande sees himself as “a man of synthesis and dialog,” though he has almost systematically ruined his political possibilities.

For four years, he watched as the number of unemployed rose month by month, a French exception to the trend in Europe. 

Then he came up with a labor market reform that gives companies and employees a bit more leeway to achieve realistic workplace solutions. It's a sensible adjustment to labor law though it doesn’t fix the fact that one part of the French workforce enjoys good conditions while day laborers live precariously. 

At best, the reform slightly improves the chances for outsiders of quickly finding a job that offers them prospects, above all those from the big-city suburbs.

Companies aren't exactly excited about the reform, and they're not likely to start offering permanent jobs. The reform isn’t wrong, just too half-hearted to stimulate the labor market.

Above all, it is much too late, for France and for Mr. Hollande himself, who has practically reduced his chances of re-election to zero.

France is in flux, but the change is taking place beyond hollow everyday politics and radical union slogans.

If an election were held soon, Mr. Hollande would lose against all conservative candidates in any conceivable combination. Worse, he would be outclassed by the head of the extreme right-wing Front National. Nevertheless, it’s expected in France that he most likely will declare himself a candidate.

So left- and right-wing socialists are praying that Mr. Hollande will get knocked out in the first round of elections and there would be a runoff between Marine Le Pen and Alain Juppé. The mayor of Bordeaux, a conservative gentleman of advanced years, is currently the only hope of the center-left – that's how far Mr. Hollande has allowed it to come.

The biggest injustice to France would be to conclude that this labor market reform proves the country cannot be changed.

France is in flux, but the change is taking place beyond hollow everyday politics and radical union slogans. Many companies have agreed to new working hour models, have made work assignments more flexible, have lowered their labor costs in agreement with their workforce.

Companies like Peugeot once faced bankruptcy; now they're making a profit. When the left-wing General Confederation of Labor calls a strike against the railway, most trains continue to run anyway. Or to put it succinctly, the French start-up Captain Train and its customers now have more power than the union.

The only question is how much longer this duality can continue to exist in a modern France, which must face down all the opposition and the presidential system’s ancien régime.


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