Labour reform buried until election: analysts

11th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 11, 2006 (AFP) - Job market reform in France is now probably buried after the debacle over the government's youth job scheme until after next year's presidential election, experts said Tuesday.

PARIS, April 11, 2006 (AFP) - Job market reform in France is now probably buried after the debacle over the government's youth job scheme until after next year's presidential election, experts said Tuesday.

"Only the presidential election can untangle the social, political and institutional crisis revealed by the First Employment Contract (CPE)," argued Stéphane Rozes of the CSA polling institute.

Nicolas Tenzer, of the Centre for Political Action and Reflexion (CERAP), agreed that questions of economic reform were likely to be "put on a back burner" until after the election.

For Pierre Giacometti, head of the IPSOS polling institute, now is not the right time for in-depth reform in France, politically or economically.

"This kind of major project is better handled at the start of a mandate than at the end," if possible supported by a period of economic growth, he said.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — the centre-right frontrunner for next year's election who advocates a radical overhaul of France's economic model — said in a front-page interview with the conservative Le Figaro on Tuesday that he remained committed to reform.

"If we want to restore hope to the French people, great changes are essential," said Sarkozy, the arch-rival of the CPE's author, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Sarkozy said that reform was "more necessary than ever" — but warned it would only be accepted by the French people if it was perceived as fair.

Several experts warned of the need to co-opt trade unions to avoid a repeat of the crisis over the CPE — an attempt to prise open the youth job market by relaxing redundancy rules during a two-year trial period.

Villepin — who introduced the measure without prior consultations with unions — finally agreed on Monday to drop the CPE after two months of strikes and mass protests by opponents.

"The lesson taught by the First Employment Contract (CPE) is that no large-scale reform can be decided in this country without a social dialogue with the unions," Rozes said. "There is a need to build shared ground on the issues, to reach acceptable compromises," he said.

French leaders, Tenzer argued, should follow the example of Germany or the Nordic countries where unions are treated as "partners", not opponents.

Despite France's culture of street protests, its workforce is one of the least unionised in Europe, with membership at eight percent, meaning that trade unions are widely seen as unrepresentative.

According to Dominique Reynie, of the Science Po institute, this creates the temptation for French governments to go it alone on labour reforms — which in turn pushes unions towards more radical attitudes, strikes and protests.

Experts also acknowledged the challenge of convincing a suspicious French public of the benefits of labour market reforms.

"Unlike in Britain, the French can't see the link between labour flexibility and job creation," because France already has flexibility, in the form of short-term job contracts, along with high unemployment, Rozes said. "But there is a way forward, provided the French people sense there has been a social negotiation taking unions into account."

"They feel able to delegate to unions the job of finding the right balance between labour flexibility and security guarantees for workers," such as free training following a redundancy, Rozes said.

Science Po's Reynie was less hopeful, however, predicting the debate on labour flexibility in France to be "over, and for a very long time" — and laying part of the blame on union rigidity.

In his opinion, France's job market will be forced to evolve, but change is likely to come by stealth, without legislating, but rather by letting the current system of short-term contracts proliferate.

To carry out reform in France, he said, "what counts is not to say so".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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