01 May 2013 at 13:40 BST

France goes flexible on employment laws

The introduction of a draft bill on what is known as 'employment securing ' could offer more flexibility for employers and more security for employees. But is this a possible win-win deal or a marriage doomed to fail, asks Christine Hillig-Poudevigne.

Will the French say oui, oui? Senai Aksoy

Divisions over gay marriage in France may have found an interesting parallel with the recent bid to reform labour rules which are expected to be passed by Parliament’s Upper House. Both cases present a challenge to change in a country notoriously known for its conservatism. For this reason, it is a fair enough question to ask whether the marriage between more flexibility for employers and more security for employees is doomed to fail.

Background to new bill

The draft bill, known as “Employment Securing”, transposes an agreement signed on 11th January 2013 by three trade unions and French employers’ federations called an  “Agreement for a new economic and social model to the service of the companies’ competitiveness and the securing of employment and of the employees’ professional career”.

An interesting indication of the way the wind is blowing is the bill’s name evolution and its stong emphasis on employment securing.This is probably to reassure labour protagonists by removing the reference to the companies’competitiveness. Following an emergency procedure, the draft bill was adopted by the French National Assembly on April 9, 2013 and by the Senate on the night of Saturday 20th April, the target being to pass the bill by the end of April or early May.

A Parliament  under pressure

Even if the draft bill transposes more or less faithfully January agreement’s provisions, opposition is fierce, each side claiming the draft bill does not reflect their position and pleading for even more flexibility (business leaders) or more protection (trade unions). Among the new more flexible tools at an employers disposal, there are two of interest - internal mobility and the competitiveness agreement.

Internal mobility

While in the past staff mobility could only be enforced due to economic difficulties, an employer will now be able to open negotiations on this matter on a routine basis. In the event of an employee’s disagreement, even with good reasons, the new legislation could facilitate an individual’s dismissal for economic reasons, without reverting to the cumbersome redundancy plan procedure.These provisions can be considered as revolutionary for French mentalities but from a legal point of view, the contradiction that they introduce leaves a lot to be desired since there is no need any longer to initiate changes due to economic difficulties.

Competitiveness agreement

The changes would include giving employers more flexibility to reduce working hours in times of economic distress and possibly reduce employees’ wages for a maximum period of two years. Staff’s refusal to comply, individual or collective, may lead to individual dismissal for economic reasons with again no need to revert to a lengthy redundancy plan procedure.

Limitations on use

However, the constraining rules included in the draft bill may considerably limit, in practice, the use and efficiency of these flexibility tools. Employers will indeed need to negotiate a collective agreement with union representatives in order to be able to use these tools and to define the governing rules, which may prove to be very difficult.
These agreements may also be rebuffed by employees and jeopardize the re-election of union representatives who have signed the deal.

Employee protection

Various other constraining rules are included in the draft bill in order to protect employees’ interests, their private and family needs as well as their jobs. Consequently, one can hardly evaluate the actual changes brought about by this new bill in France. Success will rely on unions’ willingness to commit on unpopular issues, hence taking the employers’ side, an occurrence that is yet to be seen! To make a long story short, the bill’s name evolution addressed above, says a lot about the reluctance of France to introduce more flexible labour laws.

Christine Hillig-Poudevigne is a partner at French firm Moisand, Boutin & Associés



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