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Macron faces fight over labour reform

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron Reuters/Yoan Valat/Pool

French President Emmanuel Macron's government unveiled a long-awaited overhaul of the labour code on Thursday. The reform will test his ability to force through changes and face down protests. During his election campaign, Macron argued that a radical change of France's labour regulations was key to creating jobs.


The reforms were presented by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud at a press conference broadcast live on some TV channels.

Macron’s idea is to pass the series of laws “by ordonnance - a kind of decree - in order to speed up the complicated process of making changes to the 3000+ page Labour Code.

Key measures of the reforms include:

  • Decreasing the power of the unions in large companies;
  • Allowing renegotiation of the 35-hour working week;
  • Allowing companies with fewer than 10 employees to lay off people with a month’s notice.

Macron unveils labor law

“What is called ‘labour law” is not so much a law about labour as a law about business," says Vincent Martigny, a lecturer with the Ecole Polytechnique. “The idea of the government is to encourage business by using the relations between workers and businessmen in general within small and medium-sized companies.

“And when you think about this law you shouldn’t think that it’s so much designed for big companies or big international business. And, as such, the question is will it favor essentially companies or will it also be able to protect workers? That’s the crux of the issue, the discussion between the trade unions and the government right now."

Protests planned

Even before the details were revealed, demonstrations and strikes against this law were planned for 12 September.

“It’s a wrong vision of the economy which is behind it,” says economist Dominique Plihon, who doubles as an activist for the anti-globalization NGO Attac.

“All the reforms included into these new measures taken by the government go in the same direction ... they are business-friendly and they are reducing the capacity of workers and unions to defend, to protect themselves, against unemployment, against the decline of the purchasing power."

Opponents are convinced that the measures will reduce job security and will not improve the situation in terms of employment and growth, he says.

Macron and democracy

Critics say that Macron is pushing the reforms through parliament at an unbelievable speed, even accusing him of being undemocratic.

But how democratic is this process of reforms of the labour law?

In fact, the changes will be passed by decree, which gives Macron the liberty to fast-track them without full parliamentary debate on the details.

“Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic [which was founded in 1958], government has the possibility to ask parliament to enact a sort of framework within which government can then enact regulations,” says constitutional expert Otto Pfersman of Paris I Sorbonne.

But that does not mean Marcon has a blank cheque.

“If you read article 38 of the constitution, it specifically says that in order to implement a program, the government may ask parliament for authorization for a limited period to take measures by decree that are normally the competence of the primary legislation. So, there has to be a precise period within which, both in substance and in time, such ordonnances may be taken.”

On 2 August the French Senate agreed by 225 votes to 109 to empower the president to rule by decree on the labour reforms.

The Constitutional Council has not yet given a judgment on this rule by decree and will do so at the beginning of September. Only if the council approves the procedure can the reforms be published in the Official Journal that lists France’s laws and decrees.

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