Five numbers that explain the union fight in France | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.06.2016
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Five numbers that explain the union fight in France

France has seen an endless parade of strikes and demonstrations recently. Here are five numbers that explain why it's so hard for the country to agree on a (modest) reform of the labor market. Max Hofmann reports.


That's how many people are unemployed in France. It adds up to a jobless rate of 10.3%, slightly below the record of the current president's term. It is, in any case, much too high for Francois Hollande to speak of a "meaningful fall" in the figures. Yet, that's exactly what he told French citizens to expect from him, otherwise he promised not to run for reelection. Especially worrisome is the youth unemployment rate. Some 24% of young people can't find a job and that spells trouble for France's future and traditionally translates into tensions on the streets of big cities. The French social movement "Nuit Debout" ("Up all night") has already picked up many students and other young people. What they want exactly is not entirely clear, but it involves radical change.


The percentage of the French workforce that is officially a member of a labor union. It's a low number, compared to unionization in Denmark (66.8 %) or even Germany (18.1 %).

union CGT

The left wing CGT union rejects the reform plans

But don't underestimate the power of the red side. An average of 70 to 80% of employees participate in the elections for workers councils in the companies. So even if most aren't part of a union they still actively participate in who represents them. Some unions are in favor of the planned reform of the labor market but some are decidedly not. Among the latter is the left wing CGT, which traditionally has a lot of clout with workers. The CGT flatly rejects the reform and is out to prove that it still has enough influence to block the whole project. If it means casting a big strike-shadow over the whole European soccer championship in France, so be it.


...As in Article 2 of the planned labor reform, also called the "Khomri-law", after the current labor minister Myriam El Khomri. She was aiming for a touch of liberalism in socialist France and got in a whole lot of trouble, especially for that article. What would it do if put into force? It's complicated.

France's Myriam El Khomri in Paris

Her law is too much for the unions: Myriam El Khomri

But the gist is to give companies the right to negotiate their own deals with unions and other employess, overriding blanket, sectoral agreements. Up until now it has been the other way around. Some unions are terrified that this could erode their power and indeed it would probably lead to a reduction of the cost of overtime in some companies, making the burden of France's 35 hour work week a little lighter for some patrons. But nothing is guaranteed and Article 2 has very clear limits. Still, it is the biggest thorn in the side of some unions.


That's where France ranks in international competitiveness regarding the flexibility of its labor market. That's pretty bad. All categories put together, France holds the 22nd spot in international competitiveness, due to the positive rating of its railroad infrastructure and the availability of high speed internet. But the EU's second-largest economy needs to do better overall. At the moment France is dragging Europe down, piling up debt and not really making progress. The single biggest obstacle to France being an economic motor again - and most experts agree on this one - is the rigidity of the labor market. The French government knows that, of course, and that's one of the reasons it's so desperate to push the reform through, with or without parliament.


This is the second reason the French president is showing something he's been lacking in the past (I'm talking here about backbone).

France / Francois Hollande

Last chance to build a legacy: French President Francois Hollande

According to the latest polls, 14% of the French intend to vote for Hollande, should he run again. That's not bad - it's abysmal. So far, the president has nothing to show for his term, no major achievement, only an assortment of unfinished business. He clearly is hellbent on changing that by finally doing something that might actually make a difference in a positive way. If he backs down this time (again) he will have no shot at any kind of legacy. He's already watered down the original, much more far-reaching reform legislation. Now he's drawn the line and some unions are digging in their heels. Hard to see how France gets out of this one quickly enough for a peaceful and festive European Soccer Championship.

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