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29 May 2017

Attempts by the French trade unions to moderate the Labour Code reforms planned by the new President

On 23 May, the new French President conducted face-to-face interviews with all of the social partners to discuss the planned Labour Code reforms which were among his key manifesto promises. During the interviews, Emmanuel Macron made it clear that his priorities were to decentralise collective negotiations to company level, to cap the compensation awarded by industrial tribunals to victims of unfair dismissal and to engage in fresh negotiations with the social partners on the eligibility criteria for ‘arduous work accounts’.

In comments made by the trade union leaders shortly after their interviews with the French Head of State, it was suggested that, although Macron still wished to press ahead with the reforms, he regarded them as somewhat less urgent than was previously supposed.

In a statement to the press, Philippe Martinez, Secretary-General of the General Confederation of Labour, said: ‘It looks like the timetable has shifted slightly (…). The deadline of late August or 1 September is no longer set in stone.’ Laurent Berger, leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, was less optimistic upon his departure from the Élysée Palace: ‘I expressed my belief that we should not be overhasty (…) and hurry matters along in order to have everything settled by the end of August – a deadline which I regard as wholly unrealistic.’ His sentiments were echoed by Jean-Claude Mailly, Secretary-General of Workers’ Force (Force Ouvrière, FO), in a press release which referred to the need to ‘avoid rushing into things’.

The French President’s meetings with the social partners also clarified his plans to forge ahead on two fronts which risk provoking rebellion among trade union ranks. The first of these involves the precedence of company agreements over sectoral agreements and Macron’s plans to extend the scope of this principle (currently limited for the most part to rules on working time) to cover a greater number of areas. The second relates to a cap on the compensation awarded by industrial tribunals to victims of dismissal ‘without just cause’, making it possible for employers to predict the costs of breaching an employment contract.

Emmanuel Macron’s intention to review the principles governing the ‘arduous work account’ system may place yet another obstacle in the way of dialogue with workers’ organisations. During his meeting with a representative of French employers’ associations (François Asselin, Head of the Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises), Macron apparently confirmed his intention to impose a ‘moratorium’ on the rules governing the ‘arduous work account’ and to ‘renegotiate the underlying criteria with the social partners’.

The ‘personal arduous work account’ allows employees carrying out arduous work to earn points over their working life which can be used to pay for professional training, to switch to part-time work on full-time pay or to take early retirement.

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