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Labor Law Protests in France: 1968 Encore?

JURIST Guest Columnist Pascale Duparc Portier of the National University of Ireland (Galway) Faculty of Law says that the mass protests in France against the new First Employment Contract (CPE) legislation may be reminiscent of the 1968 Paris student uprising, but this time French youth and their supporters are fighting not for more rights, but to keep what they have...

The French 'Kleenex generation', the un-paid or low-paid generation, the 'throwaway' generation, the 'precarious' generation is in the streets.

Of France's 84 universities, 60 are either partially or completely shut down following over 3 weeks of protests. Over a thousand secondary schools are on strike. One would better walk to work than try to use public transportation. Hundreds of thousands of people are demonstrating.

The trade unions want the withdrawal of the CPE - the so-called First Employment Contract - passed earlier this month. And they want the law withdrawn before entering discussions with M. de Villepin, the French Prime Minister, on other ways of trying to reduce France's 22 per cent youth unemployment (up to 70 per cent in some poor suburbs).

Polls show that over 68% of the French population opposes the labor law reform. The French and international media have reported widely on an upsurge of violence during the protests. Is France on the path to a new "May 1968" ?

France has quite a rigid labor code and one of the most secure contracts of employment in the democratic Western world. Under French law a worker - once hired and holding a permanent contract - is protected and the employer has to find very serious reasons to be entitled to put an end to the contract.

France's labor market is also one of the worst. It is sluggish. Potential highly skilled young workers can't start their careers. Unemployment has stricken the country for over two decades and both seniors and the youth are the first victims. In contrast, incompetent unproductive people with secure contracts can't be fired, employers can't get rid of them or if they decide to it costs them a huge amount of money; severance costs employers a huge amount of money. So, they are not willing to take on staff because of the shackles of the law.

In sum, France's labor law strictly protects workers without, but fewer and fewer people can find jobs even if they happen to be fully-fledged students.

Today's France also has a multitude of labor contracts of various sorts. Among them one still finds the traditional very secure permanent contract ("contrat à durée indeterminée"). This contract is officially the usual standard contract and presented as the principle. This contract can't be terminated without cause. Unfortunately for today's French working population this contract is definitely not the contract offered to most people especially those starting a career. But the much less secure fixed-term contract ("contrat à durée determinée") and temporary employment contract (" contrat de travail temporaire ») are not the only 'precarious' i.e. insecure contracts nowadays.

Recently an incredible number of new contract types have popped up to try and cope with the high rate of unemployment, namely the on-the-job training contract leading to a professional certificate ( « contrat de qualification, d'adaptation, d'orientation »), hire inciting contracts ("contrat d'incitation à l'embauche") such as "contract initiative job" « contrat initiative emploi » (CIE) or "solidarity employment contracts" (« contrats emploi solidarité » (CES) and "youth contract" (« contrat jeunes »), "apprenticeship contracts" (« contrat d'apprentissage ») and in 2005 the "new-job contract" (« contrat nouvelle embauche » (CNE)). Those contracts have been created to respond to the dire issue of youth unemployment. They provide for the frame in which young people learn a trade and thus access the labor market more easily. Most of those schemes relieve the employers from the heavy compulsory social contributions they have to pay when hiring someone.

The last highly controversial novelty is the First Employment Contract - the "Contract of First Employment" or "First-Hire Contract" (contrat première embauche, CPE), taking the form of a new bill which was first pushed through the National Assembly discretely on February 9th 2006 at 2.30 AM in the morning, formally adopted as a statute on March 9, and which is now leading France into major demonstrations, violent rioting, random violence and major strikes.

The CPE targets young people under 26 with no prior experience on the labor market. It gives the right to the employer to terminate the job of a worker under 26 for up to two years at will without any justification. A registered letter with invoice of receipt does the trick. It is defined in the bill as a 'permanent contract' with 'a consolidation period' of two years. A probation period in France usually lasts 3 to 6 months. The CPE 'consolidation period' amounts to a very long lasting trial period. The government hopes the CPE will prompt employers to hire.

On the one hand the economic and social constraints in the labor market are compelling and measures do have to be taken to give jobs to a youth that is on average highly educated.

On the other hand, creating a two tier labor system is extremely unhealthy. How can a desperate youth admit that although they are as well or better educated than their parents while the latter can earn 40% more for the same job and capitalize on pension schemes while they can't? How can this youth accept that some employed people have highly secured jobs and can thus be granted mortgages to buy a house while they might well not be in such a comfortable position because of a new contract without any guarantees? Banks have announced that they will treat the CPE as a permanent contract. Will that be the case?

The middle-class youth revolt is not about getting more, as was the case in the 1968 student uprisings, it's about keeping what it has.

In a democratic country where the 1958 Constitution starts with a Preamble stating that the Republic is grounded on "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and then confirms in article 2 'The motto of the Republic shall be « Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ', can the French youth keep silent in front of blatant inequality? Even if France can't do anything else but move towards a healthy liberal labor market in a globalized world, is the CPE the solution? In the name of equality, shouldn't we suggest that all labor contracts should read the same?

The Socialist Party waits for the right time to appeal to the Conseil constitutionnel on the grounds of workers inequality before promulgation. An ideological battle is under way.

Clearly, France has to move from a rigid welfare state with overtaxed employers and employees paying for unsustainable social benefits while privileges for a few are still quite alive (although those making decisions won't suffer from the new precarious CPE) - to a more flexible market, i.e. an Anglo-Saxon type of labor market where everyone has a chance to start working and to make it.

The CPE is one of the few steps towards liberalisation. It sounds better to have a job without security than no job at all. Furthermore, French labor law has become so complicated due to so many new types of labor contracts that there is an urgent need to simplify and to lay down statutes to ensure equal liberal rules for all.

French elections are not far away. In the face of popular uproar the government now has to make up its mind on one simple question: to give up, or to struggle?

Dr. Pascale Duparc Portier is a lecturer in Legal French at the National University of Ireland (Galway) Faculty of Law.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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