Unions grow uneasy with pace of reform

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President Nicolas Sarkozy may have won a majority in Sunday’s legislative elections, but he is far from winning his battle to reform France.

In particular, he will have to tread carefully with France’s unions. Union membership may be low by European standards at 8 per cent, but the French passion for street protest gives organised labour far wider public support in the face of potentially unpopular reforms. This week the right of centre government will present a draft law to the powerful unions on minimum service in public transport in the event of strikes, the first in a series of economic and social reforms Mr Sarkozy is determined to push through this summer.

In the first weeks of his mandate Mr Sarkozy won a cautious welcome from union leaders with reassurances that they would be involved in shaping reform. But now signs of unease are beginning to emerge.

University unions called on Sunday for a slowdown in plans to link next year’s budget to reform of the country’s stagnating third level education system. And 10 days ago three of the biggest general unions buried traditional differences to reproach the government for having barely consulted them on a draft law for tax-free overtime.

The risk for Mr Sarkozy is that his rush to push reforms through will arouse union hostility, while failure to move quickly could jeopardise his programme. “The only times we have reformed France has been within six months of electing a new president,” says Bernard Brunhes, founder of the consultancy that carries his name and specialises in labour relations. This week’s text on minimum service will be the first real test of whether the president is able to keep the protests off the streets, say union executives.

“Everything will depend on the form of the law,” says Marcel Grignard, a national secretary of the CFDT, France’s second-largest union. “Looking at how public transport responds to the needs of passengers is a useful debate, but reconciling this with the [constitutional] right to strike is not easy.” To keep the peace the draft law may well have to be a rather anodyne text requiring discussion, rather than a floor for minimum service.

The second big challenge will be the abolition of charges on hours worked over the statutory 35-hour week. Since the introduction of the 35-hour week in 2000, companies have won a certain flexibility through individual agreements with local unions. Now, says Mr Grignard, these could be called into question by a new law.

Finally, there are the simultaneous negotiations between unions and employers that Mr Sarkozy has said must pave the way for legislation before the end of the year. These will cover reform of the rigid labour contract, equality of pay, restructuring the jointly managed unemployment system, and how to ensure the legitimacy of France’s constitutionally approved unions in labour relations. It is this last issue that may well prove the spark that sets off a round of protests this autumn.

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