French Flip Flop on Reforms as Government Botches Message

  • Government watered down bill after unions, students protested
  • Polls show French public actually favors more economic reforms

Do the French know what they want from economic reforms?

Faced with anemic growth and stubbornly high unemployment, the French in polls show they favor easing the labor code. What’s more, the country’s 38-year-old reformist economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, is the most popular member of the government. Yet public pressure and street protests have forced the government to water down a law that had sought to overhaul labor rules with a view to encourage employers to boost hiring.

The European Union has pressured President Francois Hollande’s government to reform the French economy. The so-called El Khomri Law was intended to relax France’s notoriously rigid labor market, but the government earlier this month backed down on several key measures after two days of protests by unions and students. What remains of the law was approved by the cabinet on Thursday, probably the last reforms the government dares push through before next year’s presidential elections.

“Public opinion can seem very confused when you look at opinion polls, but you can’t say the French are against reforms,” said Yves-Marie Cann, director of political studies at pollsters Elabe. “Taken on their own, these measures could have been supported. But the overall view was negative.”

Poor communication and what was perceived as an effort to ram through everything from limiting severance pay in contested firings, giving companies more leeway in setting work hours and cutting jobs during economic downturns may have sunk the original text of the law. A poll by Odoxa for newspaper Le Parisien on March 5 said 70 percent of the French were opposed to the El Khomri law, named after Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri. Most of those reforms have now been watered down.

Entrepreneur vs Employee

The cabinet’s approval of the law, initially scheduled for earlier this month, was delayed by two weeks to give the government time to weaken most of its measures.

An Odoxa poll the previous month showed the public was in favor of the law’s individual measures, even controversial ones that were later eased. The poll said 56 percent supported more leeway for companies to select their hours and 51 percent favored limiting severance pay. Separately, 49 percent wanted to abolish the 2000 law limiting the work week to 35 hours, up from 34 percent five years ago.

The government was incompetent in selling the law to the public, said Elabe’s Cann. “It was a sin of amateurism and over-confidence,” he said. “They didn’t do things in the right order, they never prepared public opinion.” While the bill contained measures to increase job training, the government allowed all the focus to be on parts of the law deemed to be more favorable to employers than employees.

Popular Macron

Cann said last year’s Macron law allowing shops to open more often on Sunday was also opposed by unions, but was better accepted by public opinion and passed easily because from the start the government explained that workers would be allowed to refuse working Sundays and would receive higher pay if they worked.

Polls repeatedly show that the most popular minister in the government is Macron, who has frequently clashed with members of the ruling Socialist Party by advocating getting rid of the 35-hour workweek, setting civil servants’ pay solely by merit, and by once saying the life of an entrepreneur is more difficult than that of an employee.

An Odoxa poll in January gave Macron a 53 percent approval rating -- the only member of the government over 50 percent -- compared with 24 percent for Hollande and 23 percent for former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

‘Major Defeat’

The government’s inability to push the El Khomri law through in its initial form was due to the out-sized importance of unions and street demonstrations in France, said Cecile Alduy, a professor of French politics and culture at Stanford University.

“Macron, who is rather center-left and neo-liberal in his economic views, is widely popular across the general population, yet a minority of workers, unions and student organizations marched in the street against the labor law that Macron supports,” she said. “The French population at large is rather in favor of more liberalization, but those in favor don’t take to the streets to say so.”

The climb-down over the labor law “is a major defeat for the government,” Cann said. “The law that will be adopted is much less ambitious than what they originally wanted, and a year from an election when Hollande needs to be re-uniting the left, he’s managed to divide them again.”

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