42. French Labor Code overhaul announced – but isn’t it too late?

The French Labor Code is legendary: legendarily long (3800 pages) and legendarily complex. No wonder that President Hollande announced earlier in October that his government would revamp the labor legislation. It was, without a doubt, time. The details were announced this week: the legal workweek would remain 35 hours long, but companies would have some room for flexibility through the extensive use of collective agreements. In other words, social dialogue is back. 

The Valls government is going to take charge of one part of the reform right now: the administration is going to present the new rules regarding working time, vacations and rest periods in early 2016. The government wants these new rules to enter into force before the Summer – but knowing the French parliamentary system and the way interest groups can put pressure on lawmakers, the first modifications won’t be definitely signed into law before the second part of next year.

I think that the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who announced the intentions of the government, knows that time is running out. He indicated that the complete revamp of the French Labor Code would be finished in 2018 – in any case, during the mandate of another President, or during the second mandate of the sitting President.

The trunk line of the complete reform will be worked out by a well respected former Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter who just wrote a book (Le travail et la loi) about the necessary revamp of the French Labor Code. His task is to head the task force that defines the “fundamental rights guaranteed to everyone”.

The complete reform will be built around three main lines, as announced by the Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri: the first main axis will define the basic social rights, the rights and rules that cannot be modified by negotiation. The second axis will list the issues open to social dialogue-negotiation and draw up the system itself (the government declared several times that the hierarchy of norms would not change, meaning that a workplace or a sector level agreement would not be able to override the law). Finally, the third main line will lay down the rules that should be applied when there is no sector level or enterprise level agreement between unions and employers.

According to the analysis of most observers, if the reform is put into place like this, it will definitely give more space to negotiation and give a greater role to social partners. Again, I have to note that President Hollande seems to really believe in social dialogue. But I also know that promoting social dialogue is a good way to share and hand out political and economic responsibility.

Truth to be told, if I’d been President Hollande I would have attacked the French Labor Code right after taking the oath of office. Now it might be politically too late. The reform will go way beyond the 2017 presidential election, and results might not turn up before 2019-2020. Anyway, starting to work on the French Labor Code this late in the political cycle might be a dangerous thing to do – and definitely worthy of our attention.


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