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19 January 2017

French elections: the Socialist candidates and their pre-election social policy promises

The candidate who will run for the Socialist Party in the French presidential elections to be held in spring 2017 will be officially nominated in an ‘open primary’ ballot involving two rounds of voting on 22 and 29 January 2017. The ETUI has examined the manifestos of the front-runners, and their positions on the key issues affecting trade unions are outlined below. Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – two leading political figures on the left who have announced their intention to run in the presidential elections but have refused to take part in the open primary organised by the Socialist Party and its allies – have also been included.

Labour legislation

Opinions among the various Socialist candidates are divided on the labour code reform pushed through by Manuel Valls’ government in the summer of 2016, with the former Prime Minister unsurprisingly arguing in favour of the much-debated Labour Law. On 12 January, during a debate broadcast on the private television channel TF1, he claimed that ‘the reform means new rights for workers thanks to the youth guarantee and the arduous work account scheme’.

Three other candidates running in the Socialist Party’s open primary ballot – Benoît Hamon, Arnaud Montebourg and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – have made it very clear that the Law should be repealed, first and foremost because it overturns the hierarchy of norms by introducing decentralised collective negotiations at company level on such vital issues as working hours (Article 8 of the Law).

‘The Law encourages companies in the same sector to engage in a race to the bottom,’ asserted Arnaud Montebourg during the televised debate. His position is diametrically opposite to that of Emmanuel Macron, who has made no secret of his intention to continue the ‘toppling of the hierarchy of norms’ heralded by the Labour Law, and has even gone so far as to say that ‘contracts should take precedence over legislation’.

The social democrat Vincent Peillon plans to amend the Law rather than repealing it, in order to re-establish the hierarchy of norms in the area of employment legislation.

Retirement

With the exception of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has promised to lower the retirement age back to 60, the manifestos of all of the other Socialist candidates more or less echo the tenets of the retirement reform pushed through by the Socialist government in January 2014, and Arnaud Montebourg even plans to extend the scope of the ‘arduous work account’ scheme introduced in 2015, under which workers in arduous jobs are entitled to early retirement.

Emmanuel Macron does, however, wish to introduce a greater degree of flexibility into the system by instituting a rolling retirement age – from a minimum of 60 to a maximum of 67 – for different jobs. Macron, who is the youngest of the candidates and considered by many observers to be the most liberal, has proposed that the pension scheme for self-employed workers should be linked to the general scheme for employees. The much more left-leaning Benoît Hamon also believes that all pension assets should be subject to the same protection ‘in order to do away with the distinction between salaried and freelance work’.

Working time

Although all of the Socialist candidates have nailed their colours to the mast of the 35 hour working week, there are nevertheless important differences between their views on this issue, and several believe that the system should be somewhat more flexible.

Macron has proposed that the 35 hours per week rule should be adapted on a case-by-case basis, so that young people are allowed to work longer than 35 hours, for example, but older members of the workforce are allowed to work only between 30 and 32 hours. Hamon believes that the legal weekly working time limit should continue to be 35 hours, but that companies should be encouraged to explore all the possible options for achieving working time reductions, such as four-day weeks, sabbaticals and part-time work. The most moderate of the candidates, Vincent Peillon, has suggested that ‘workers should be given more freedom to choose a working pattern which fits their current stage of life’.

Manuel Valls has put forward the most iconoclastic proposal in this respect by suggesting that the detaxation of overtime, instigated by Nicolas Sarkozy and promptly repealed by François Hollande, should be reintroduced.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is in favour of a sixth week of paid leave, and has also taken a dig at one of his rivals – Macron, who in his previous role as Minister of the Economy extended Sunday trading in tourist areas in the ‘Macron Law’ adopted in August 2015 to promote growth, activity and equality of economic opportunities – by stating his intention to put an end to work on Sundays.

Social dialogue and worker representation

It should come as no surprise that the manifestos of the most left-wing candidates go into the greatest detail on this topic, with Montebourg and Hamon proposing that the boardroom should be opened up to employees.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s manifesto states that works councils should be granted new rights of financial control, and that workers should have greater scope for intervention against redundancies by granting these councils the right to a suspensive veto.

Manuel Valls has suggested boosting trade union involvement by introducing a ‘trade union cheque’ arrangement, under which employees would receive money from their employer to cover the dues for a trade union of their choice.

Digitalisation

While Valls and Macron believe that the ‘digital revolution’ is essentially good news in terms of job creation and growth for French companies, with Valls stating in his manifesto that he wishes to turn Paris into ‘the undisputed digital capital of Europe’, Benoît Hamon advocates the introduction of a tax on robots, and has promised that he ‘will tackle the issue of bogus self-employment as perpetuated by Uber-like companies, and […] ensure that their “partners” are reclassified as employees’.

Montebourg goes even further by stating that ‘It is up to us to create a community of self-employed workers who benefit from social security and fair wages, to encourage liberation through work and to prevent the emergence of a class of digital slaves made up of entrepreneurs turned into serfs.’

Most of the candidates have spoken out in favour of the ‘right to disconnect’ which has been enshrined in French legislation since the entry into force of the Labour Law on 1 January 2016.

Working conditions

The candidates’ main area of interest in the field of occupational health relates to psychosocial risk factors, and both Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have made a commitment to ensuring that employee burnout is recognised as an occupational disease. According to a post made by Mélenchon on his blog, ‘suffering at work must be declared a “great national cause”’. He proposes as a practical step that ‘occupational accidents be made a public procurement selection criterion’.

In his manifesto, Manuel Valls inveighs against ‘management methods which are dehumanising and disrespectful of workers’, adding that ‘well-being at work is a vital factor and guarantee of improved productivity’.

Universal income

Hamon’s manifesto differs significantly from that of the other leaders in the race for the Socialist Party’s presidential ticket in that he advocates the gradual introduction of a universal basic income of €750 per month for the over-18s, an idea which has been categorically rejected by all the other Socialist candidates.

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