PARIS — Welcome to the land of the 35-hour workweek, the five-week annual vacation and, best of all, the “contract of indeterminate length.”
Find one of those golden tickets and you basically cannot be fired, even if you stop performing.
But maybe not for long.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s new leader, is about to embark on the opening salvo of an as-yet-untested presidency: reforming France’s staunchly regulated labor market, the lifeblood of one of Europe’s most protective welfare states.
Macron, a former investment banker, staked much of his bid for the Elysee Palace earlier this year on grandiose promises of overhauling this famously cushy market, both to stimulate economic growth and lower unemployment, now over 9 percent.
With his flair for rhetoric, the president has even referred to his plans as a “Copernican revolution” — a shift more in worldview than policy, through which the euro zone’s second-largest economy can regenerate itself for the future. But in a country where powerful unions are a fact of life, this was never going to be easy.
Indeed it never has been.
Nearly every modern French president has tried to do much the same, but to no avail. Most have faced massive — and even violent — strikes in the process.
For now, however, a repeat seems unlikely. When the substance of Macron’s reforms was announced late Thursday, the reaction — even among union leaders — was that change, good or bad, was inevitable.
“I think we can consider it a victory for him,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political analyst and expert on the French Socialist Party, which has historic ties to several prominent unions. “My general impression is that [the reforms] can pass, and the country can move on.”
For one, Grunberg said, the proposed reforms were more moderate than originally anticipated. Macron, who made millions at Rothschild before entering political life, had earned a reputation among his critics as a French Margaret Thatcher a bit too chummy with big business.
But the text of the proposals suggested otherwise.
There are some provisions that are sure to rankle labor advocates. The majority of French companies employ fewer than 50 workers, and under the new measures, these smaller businesses would be able to hire and fire employees without a union representative present.
At the same time, after months of dialogue and deliberations, there were some concessions to other side. One of them was that employees dismissed for legitimate reasons would be entitled to 25 percent more compensation when they leave.
The apparent olive branch seems to have worked. In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the most prominent union leaders backed down from the earlier warnings they had issued to the new president.
Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, or CFDT, France’s largest union, said he was disappointed with certain provisions, but went so far as to praise others.
In the end, he said, things could have been much worse for labor advocates: This is not, he told Le Monde, “the destruction of the labor code that some critics have proclaimed.”
Most importantly, Berger’s union and the Force Ouvrière, another powerful French union, have decided not to protest later this month. Others have vowed to take to the streets, and so has the outspoken Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose far-left faction has sought to cast Macron as a neoliberal boogeyman out to launch a “social coup d’état.”
Macron may object to Mélenchon’s criticism, but he probably does not disagree with the level on which his former political opponent has cast his vision.
A social sea change, after all, was always the point of his “Copernican revolution,” which he admitted in a rare interview with the French magazine Le Point this week.
“The aim of action is not to reform the labor code or to reduce public deficits, to transform the management of the state or to reform taxation,” Macron said. “These are means, instruments, to achieve something else.”
And as for that “something else”?
As Macron told Le Point, the goal is to change the face of France. The real agenda, he said, is “to liberate our energies, and, by this liberation, to be done with the deception of the previous years: that of a country hard on the weak but that rambles on about equality and fraternity, a country that’s corseted in rules and unearned incomes that believes itself a country of liberty, and of a unequal society that does not give a place to merit.”
Beyond the lofty ambitions, Macron needs these and other economic reforms to pass for another reason: proving to the European Union — and especially to Germany — that the French economy is under control. (France’s budget deficit has been significantly above the E.U.’s 3 percent shortfall for most of the 18 years since that cutoff was instated.) Only then can he embark on his signature project of reforming Europe from within.
At the moment, however, little seems to be standing in his way: His newly founded political party has a majority in the French Parliament, and some version of his reforms will likely be adopted later this month.
As the harbinger of a “Copernican revolution” or a “social coup d’état,” Macron may soon be something else — a French president who stared down the unions, and actually won.