Labor Reforms Divide France’s Ruling Socialists

President François Hollande risks splitting his party by resuming efforts to shake up a sclerotic labor market.

French president François Hollande answers questions from reporters at the Elysée Palace in Paris, April 13, 2013
French president François Hollande answers questions from reporters at the Elysée Palace in Paris, April 13, 2013 (Valsts Kanceleja)

Leading Socialist Party lawmakers took to the page of Le Monde on Thursday to condemn labor reforms planned by President François Hollande.

“Enough is enough!” write Martine Aubry and seventeen other leftwingers. They argue that Hollande’s belated attempts to liberalize the labor market will “weaken” France in the long term.

Aubry is the architect of France’s 35-hour workweek and contested the Socialist Party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Hollande bested her at the time with 57 to 43 percent support.


The reforms now being considered would allow employees to work more than 35 hours per week, make it easier for firms to fire workers and put a ceiling on damages in the event of unfair dismissal.

The changes are likely to be watered down before being put to parliament next month.

Aubry and her allies are firing the first shots is what is almost certain to be a contentious debate within the ruling party.

“What will remain of the ideas of socialism when, day after day, its principles and its basis are being undermined?” they wonder.

Aubry similarly derided the extension of Sunday shopping hours, sneering, “Has the left now got nothing else to suggest for the organization of our lives than a Sunday walk in a shopping center?”

On and off again

Hollande walked back an earlier reform push in January when his government unveiled €2 billion worth of job-boosting measures.

He also reshuffled his cabinet in an attempt to unify the left ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2017.

The Greens, who left Hollande’s coalition in 2014 when he appointed a relative centrist, Manuel Valls, as prime minister, got back three cabinet posts.

Valls cut business taxes and liberalized Sunday shopping as well as intercity transport last year to the dismay of the old left. Companies were also allowed to opt out of collective bargaining agreements.

Deeper reforms that could have ironed out the differences between typically older workers who enjoy full labor protections and youngsters who can only find temp jobs were abandoned, though.

Election prospects

Polls suggest such reforms could find widespread support, but they are anathema to a French Socialist Party that never went through a more business-friendly phase in the 1990s and early 2000s like its counterparts in Europe and the United States.

The party’s dismal prospects for next year’s election may be what motivated Hollande to continue the liberalization after all.

The Socialists are almost certain to lose their majority in parliament. Polls also show the president losing to either the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen or whoever the mainstream Republican right nominates.

Hollande earlier vowed now to seek reelection if unemployment isn’t lower in 2017 than it was when he assumed office. The rate has been stuck at around 10 percent since he was elected in 2012.

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