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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: 35 heures : Fillon et Bertrand jouent l’affrontement

by Yves Housson

The French Prime Minister and Minister for Labor Seek a Fight Over 35-Hour Work Week.

Translated Tuesday 17 June 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

The Legal Work Week. All the trade unions have reaffirmed their opposition to planned deregulation. The government remains intransigent and bulldozes on.

There can no longer be any doubt about it: The government has chosen to fight the trade unions in order to adopt, come what may, its destructive labor plans. The Minister for Labor brought final confirmation on Wednesday June 11 at the meeting of the National Commission on Collective Bargaining. Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand repeated that he intends to have the French Parliament adopt a very ambivalent bill, which includes two measures that are as related as fish and fowl. The first measure reforms the rules that define trade union recognition and which make it possible to validate trade union agreements, so as to extend democracy in this area. These measures, which were laid down in a negotiated “common position,” were approved by the two most influential trade union federations, the CGT and the CFDT, as well as by an employers’ association that is seeking renewed legitimacy in French society, in particular following the UIMM scandal. The “common position” is, however, contested by the other French trade unions, which fear that their role in the system of labor relations will be reduced.

“A Pyrrhic victory”

The second measure in the bill consists in a set of provisions which will do away with a whole series of legal protections for workers concerning the length of the work week, so as to give companies “greater flexibility.” This measure was never negotiated, the “common position” having been limited to foreseeing a special dispensation contingent on overtime hours, on an experimental basis, and only with the agreement of a majority of the employees at a company. As the general secretary of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, pointed out the to deputies of the UMP party who heard him at the French National Assembly on Tuesday, “you are preparing, in the same session and in the same bill, to consecrate the virtues of greater labor democracy and to crush that democracy with regard to one of the most basic aspects of working conditions.”

On Wednesday, at the meeting of the Commission on Collective Bargaining, the trade unions repeated their unanimous opposition to the part of the bill concerning the length of the work week. Moreover, the president of the employers’ association, the MEDEF, Laurence Parisot, reaffirmed her criticism of the government’s handling of the question, consisting in going beyond the “common position” arrived at by labor and management. The boss of the employers’ association reproached Prime Minister Fillon’s team for seeking “a Pyrrhic victory” on this issue, a victory which will make “other reforms more difficult” [to obtain].

But French President Sarkozy’s men remain deaf. Minister for Labor Xavier Bertrand boasted that he “assumes” his “divergences” with “labor and management.” The Minister for Labor’s only answer to the chorus of criticism of the violation of the labor dialogue, a dialogue which he often praises to the hilt, was to hide yet again behind Sarkozy’s 2007 election promise to eliminate the “shackles” represented by the 35-hour work week.

There is nothing to negotiate.

The Prime Minister strikes the same note. “Labor dialogue is becoming a little more tense,” he conceded yesterday in a speech before the UMP’s social convention. “The path of dialogue is still open,” he claimed, “but each party must be aware of our determination to act.” In plain English, changing the length of the work week is not open to negotiation. In exactly the same way, no dialogue was possible on extending to 41 years the period of work required for workers to be able to retire on a full pension.

Everything is happening as if, confronted both with a sharp fall in popularity and with an increase in the number of dissident movements opposing their “reforms”, the Sarkozy-Fillon-Bertrand triumvirate is playing the radicalization and provocation cards, in order to mobilize the most reactionary section of right-wing voters. However the mask of serenity on the face of the Minister for Labor cannot conceal the truth. “When a government is sure of itself, it is ready to negotiate. When it shuts the door to negotiation, it reveals its weakness,” CGT leader Maryse Dumas pointed out after Wednesday’s meeting. In any case, “we are now in a very serious confrontation,” she underlined, before going on to insist on the “interest” of public and private-sector workers in “demonstrating in the streets on June 17” in answer to the call issued by the CGT, the CFDT, the FSU [the main teachers union], and Solidaires. And she warned: “If this bill is not withdrawn, there will be more demonstrations. It took us four months to obtain the withdrawal of the CPE law in 2006...”

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