By ELAINE GANLEY and SYLVIE CORBET
PARIS (AP) — French employers will be less afraid to hire and French workers at small and medium-sized businesses will finally have a voice with new labor reforms unveiled Thursday, France’s prime minister said.
But the measures meant to foster growth, reduce the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment and revolutionize the way the French work were met with quick disapproval from some unions.
President Emmanuel Macron faces his biggest test yet with overhauling France’s complex labor laws, which authorities say have proved a hindrance to investors and employers. It’s part of a larger program by Macron to stimulate the sluggish French economy.
The high-stakes move comes just as the new 39-year-old president’s popularity is sinking. French unions and political opponents have called for street protests and strikes this fall.
Plans to make the labor market more flexible were at the heart of Macron’s election campaign. However, opponents fear it will weaken France’s hard-won worker protections that have become globally synonymous with the envied French lifestyle.
The aim is to “make up for lost years, missed occasions,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Thursday. “It probably would have been easier and less risky to treat the symptoms rather than cure them.”
In introducing the measures, he said, among other things, small- and medium-size companies are a priority “for the first time.” Nine out of 10 companies in France have less than 50 employees and Philippe said they are forgotten in negotiations. Now they are “at the heart” of planned changes.
With the changes, companies with fewer than 50 employees can negotiate work rules with an elected colleague, and companies with fewer than 20 employees can negotiate directly with the employees.
Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud said the reforms aim to not just change France’s work rules but “to change the behavior of social dialogue in our country.”
Left-wing opponents fear the changes will hand too much power to profit-focused bosses.
Beyond the reforms themselves, the way they are being enacted is also divisive, via a special procedure that avoids a lengthy parliamentary debate. The draft reforms are to be presented at a Cabinet meeting Sept. 20, after endorsement by the Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative body. They are to be ratified by the end of the year.
“All the fears we had are confirmed,” said the head of the communist-backed CGT union, Philippe Martinez. “(It’s) the end of the labor contract.”
He asked retirees and students to bolster a day of action his union has called for Sept. 12.
The new plan gives French businesses more flexibility in defining internal working rules instead of being bound by sector-wide rules.
The head of the more moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, said his union “is disappointed” but would not join in the September protest, instead organizing its own action in October.
Far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon will lead his own Sept. 23 protest rally against the reforms.
Foreign investors and France’s European neighbors were watching Macron’s plan closely. France is the No. 2 economy in the eurozone, but its chronic 10-percent unemployment has long weighed on the region’s growth.
The labor overhaul is the central pillar in Macron’s promises to create jobs and make his country more globally competitive after repeated failed efforts at reform.
“We must see things as they are: We are the only major economy of the European Union which hasn’t vanquished mass unemployment in more than three decades,” Macron told the newsmagazine Le Point.
One measure caps the financial penalty for companies sued by employees while another simplifies negotiations between employers and employees.
Philippe said more than 100 meetings with unions and employers’ organizations were held to prepare the reforms.
“We have been awaiting this plan for decades,” said Pierre Gattaz, president of France’s main employers’ organization, Medef.
France’s main European partners have repeatedly called on France to reform its job market to boost Europe economically.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Wednesday in Paris that he was “impressed” by what he heard about the reform.
“I’m sure this will help (France) to become stronger,” Gabriel said.