French Labour Reform Is Inevitable, But May Cost Hollande His Re-Election in 2017

The strikes in France will go on, getting more and more radical. The government will use force and wait for the summer vacation season to defuse public sentiments.

A national strike against the labour reform in France, part of anti-governmental protests that have swept the country for three months now, resulted in mass clashes with police. According to Arnaud Dubien, head of the Observo analytical centre, the government now faces the choice between “bad” and “very bad” scenarios.

Such strikes, escalating to mass riots, are not extraordinary in France, Dubien told in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, in contrast to countries like Germany, where strikes are an extremity, France has no culture of peaceful communication between the authorities, trade unions and employers,” he said. “French trade unions are weak and it is their weakness that forces them to resort to such measures as organizing strikes instead of dialogue. This is a peculiarity of France.”

The current protests are special in that the labour reform was initiated by a left government, unlike in 1995, when major changes to labour legislation were pushed for by the right politicians. In addition, now there is a conflict between two parts of the left movement in France.

“On the one hand, there are reformist left represented by the president, the prime minister, the cabinet and [the minister of economy] Mr. Macron, who was the driving force behind this reform. On the other hand, there are communists and the green, heirs of left radicalism,” Dubien added.

According to the analyst, French society is divided with regard to the current developments. “Polls show that most people do not support the labour reform,” he said. “But oil refinery blockades and strikes are not endorsed either.”

Dubien believes that the government is unlikely to make serious concessions, i.e. back down on Article 2, the proposed legislation’s key point, which gives companies more freedom on decisions about firing in case of economic difficulties as well as increasing working hours and cutting overtime premiums.

“If the government backtracks on this reform, its popularity, already low, will vanish,” Dubien believes. “The ratings of [president] Hollande, who is going to run again, is very low. What is happening widens the gap between left forces. And if the left forces do not unite at some stage, Hollande may not make it to the second tour of the presidential election. If he backs down on the labour reform, he will lose both face and whatever remains of his popularity in the eyes of the reformers.”

“But the president should not expect a good outcome: the choice is between a bad scenario and a very bad one,” Dubien said.

This means that the government’s best hope is that the protest movement will fizzle out over time, the French analyst believes.

“I think that the strikes will go on, getting more and more radical. The government will use force – albeit in the French way – and wait for the summer vacation season to defuse public sentiments,” he said. “In case of serious incidents, like oil refinery blockades leading to fuel shortages, riot police will be sent in. As for the threat of a halt or disruption of operation of nuclear power plants, where left trade unions are very strong, France, as any other centralized country that respects itself, has very serious legislation, which enables the prefects to make people work.”

Dubien believes the government is likely to pass the law by a special procedure, using Article 49.3 which allows the government to put through a bill without a vote in the parliament. According to him, this may be followed by further confrontation.

France has a significant experience of using riot police without bloody consequences, Dubien said. “French police knows how to deal with crowds and demonstrators. In 1968, when France was blockaded for a month, millions of people took part in demonstrations and barricades were set up across Paris, there were no casualties. France has a culture of crowd management. Today, the situation is not as deplorable, therefore I think the government can employ this way of tackling the crisis,” Dubien concluded. 
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