40. Here’s why the social conference is a symptom of the Hollande presidency

The 4th social conference of the Hollande presidency took place at the beginning of this week. While it is safe to say that policy-wise there is nothing major to report on (a minor Labor Law “clarification” is promised, though), the social conference is worthy of our attention: it is a symptom and symbol of the state of France. Here is why.

Social conferences: regular meetings with social partners

President Hollande believes in social dialogue, he himself said so. His government keeps pushing for it: the so-called social conferences initiated by the government take place quasi regularly and try to bring employers’ organizations and trade unions together to discuss current policy issues with the government. (Not all organizations cooperate though: this time, for instance, the left-wing General Confederation of Labor – CGT refused to participate, and was therefore severely criticized by government officials.)

A tool for power

Forcing social partners to talk to each other, and if possible, come up with a compromise, has been not only a social democratic tradition and value respected by the President. It is also a tactical tool in order to force everyone to compromise on pending legislation. This is a subtle way of sharing and handing out political responsibility. The message is clear: “if you have a problem, talk to your own people, they were there when this was adopted”.  Since 1995, when France was practically paralyzed by protests against then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s reform plans, nobody really wants to piss the unions off.  If they are inside the system and listened to, they are less likely to wreak havoc, and Hollande, who has been a political player since the 80s, knows this first-hand.

French trade unions are masters of contestation

French trade unions are masters of contestation (source: Fortune.com)

Nothing really happened…

The day of the social conference began, by the way, with a long interview given by the President to the RTL channel. It lasted for one hour, but the President did not really manage to say anything consequential. His opening speech, later during the day, was much more interesting, and I’ll be back to it in a minute. After the opening of the social conference, the participants broke up into three round-tables, where, this time, the most delicate issues were carefully avoided. For instance, much needed changes to the Labor Code were not discussed. Nevertheless, one important 2016 reform was on the table (the creation of a so-called personal activity account, which would link social rights, unemployment benefits, training etc. to the person and not to the employment contract).

… but the president at least laid out a roadmap

The opening speech of the president was interesting because he not only laid out a roadmap until the end of his term, but also presented what the government did and did not want to do. In France, knowing what is unalterable is as much important as knowing what businesses and trade unions should really expect the government to do. In the spirit of this part of wisdom, Hollande promised that there would be a “clarification” in the Labor Code, but the government would not change the regulations concerning the minimum wage, the working hours (a.k.a. 35 hours), and the contracts. The Prime Minister added later on that the main points of that reform would be presented on 28 October.

The outcome of the social conference suggests that “reforming slowly but steadily” is still the idea and plan of President Hollande. Too bad his left-wing enemies don’t want reform and his right-wing don’t want slow…