“Crunch time for Emmanuel Macron has arrived,” says Kim Willsher in The Observer. The president is launching his “flagship reform”: a revamp of France’s notoriously rigid labour market. Two previous attempts to shake up the “weighty and hugely complex” labour code and boost employment and growth flopped: in the 1990s there was a general strike, while under Macron’s predecessor François Hollande, major protests prompted the changes to be quietly shelved. Could it be third time lucky?
His plan is to “bring France into the 21st century”, as he puts it. One notion is to give companies more say in organising working time and pay, allowing staff to hold a referendum if powerful national unions resist. The unemployment benefit system, jointly run by unions and employers, is to be taken over by the government, allowing it to tighten benefit rules and promote training for the unemployed, not just “the system’s insiders”, says The Economist.
Macron wants to cap the amount of money industrial tribunals award in compensation. The administration has also talked about loosening tax and social insurance obligations for smaller firms. The overall aim is to try to make hiring and firing slightly easier. It’s easy to write France off as unreformable, but Macron’s odds appear better than his predecessors’, reckons Jonathan Miller in The Spectator. He has total control of the National Assembly “and it is entirely composed of [people] who owe their political existence only to him”. He set up a new centrist party, En Marche, so the members are not beholden to the Socialist or centre-right party machines. “Big media is behind him,” while “the plutocrats… want their reforms.”
The unions appear to be in an unusually conciliatory mood. One of the more left wing, the Force Ouvrière, has said that “everything is on the table”, says Willsher. The militant Communist CGT has irritated everyone for so long that its protests will not weigh as heavily with the public as they once might have.
It will be interesting to gauge to what extent Macron’s wishlist could be watered down in ongoing discussions with the unions. But it is encouraging to note that he is one of the very few people who has pushed through structural reforms before. As employment minister under Hollande, he brought in a bill to deregulate cosseted professions, such as notaries, and reduce union control over working hours; Sunday shopping was liberalised too. The employers’ confederation was impressed enough to herald la loi Macron as “a real step in the right direction”. He now has a chance to take several more.