18th Mar 2018


Hollande chooses Europe against the French left

  • Francois Hollande (l) and Manuel Valls (r). France has to take "decisive action", the EU commission said (Photo: French PM office)

The date may have been a coincidence.

Tuesday's (10 May) decision by the French government to bypass parliament and pass a law reforming the labour market to make it more flexible can be seen as a symbol for the state of the French left, and of France itself.

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Exactly 35 years earlier, on 10 May 1981, Francois Mitterrand became the first elected Socialist president. With his communist allies he said he wanted to "change life".

The day is still celebrated by the French left, and the hope to "break with capitalism" is still a reference for a part of the left.

But two years later, in 1983, Mitterrand abandoned leftist economic policies and embraced austerity to keep France inside the European Monetary System and to maintain its influence in the European Community.

On 10 May 2016, president Francois Hollande - who in 1981 worked in Mitterrand's office - and his prime minister Manuel Valls decided to skip a debate and a vote in parliament to pass a law that is meant to keep France on track with its EU commitments.

The move - dubbed 49.3, after the article in the constitution that allows it - is designed to stifle opposition from the far left and from within the Socialist Party and to avoid a defeat in parliament.

The bill can now be blocked only if a defiance motion is adopted. A motion proposed by the right-wing opposition will be debated on Thursday (12 May) but it is not expected to pass.

The controversial labour bill, named the El Khomri law after labour minister Myriam El Khomri, makes lay-offs easier and less costly and allows longer working hours.

It has triggered street protests by trade unions and students and generated a movement called "Nuit debout" (Stand up at night) which aims to reinvent politics.

Risky move

Since the end of March, thousands of mainly young people have gathered every night to protest against the El Khomri bill and debate economic and social policies.

So far the events have failed to develop into a wider movement that would include trade unions or alienated young people from foreign backgrounds.

But it has revealed the growing gap between several left factions, with the centre-left government accused of a rightist drift.

Just a year before the presidential and parliamentary elections, the use of 49.3 is a risky move for Hollande as it is likely to confirm an unbridgeable gap between his government and the protesting left.

On Tuesday, a few hours after prime minister Valls announced the parliamentary bypass, members of the Nuit Debout demonstrated in front of the National Assembly and in several cities. Trade unions called for strikes and demonstrations next week, on 17 and 19 May.

But for the government, adopting the bill is more than a political showdown. It is also a strategic signal sent to the EU.

Next week the European Commission will present its country-specific recommendations - the roadmap that EU countries have to follow to respect their commitments and avoid corrective procedures or even fines from the EU.

In last year's recommendation to France, the commission said that France "should take decisive action to remove the regulatory thresholds in labour law and accounting regulations that limit the growth of French firms".

The commission therefore required that "France take action in 2015 and 2016 to: Reform the labour law to provide more incentives for employers to hire on open-ended contracts. Facilitate take up of derogations at company and branch level from general legal provisions, in particular as regards working time arrangements."

Weakness and rigidity

In February, in its 2016 report on France, the commission said that France made "some progress" in doing what was required in the 2015 recommendations. But it pointed out the "weakness" and the "rigidity" of the labour market.

The commission also said that France would one of only three countries, with Spain and Greece, to exceed the 3 percent limit of authorised budget deficit this year.

France was given until 2017 - election year - to reduce its deficit under 3 percent.

For Hollande it is crucial to avoid more pressure from the commission, but also from countries like Germany, and show that he is doing what is necessary to keep France on the right track.

With the labour market law and the move to bypass the parliament, the French president chose Europe against the left. It is politically risky but from a EU point of view he may not have had an alternative.

The French protest that wants to redefine politics

The Nuit Debout movement is a protest against a labour market reform. But its participants are rejecting the political system and especially the policies followed by the centre-left government.


The populists may have won, but Italy won't leave the euro

The situation as Rome tries to form a government is turbulent and unpredictable. However, the most extreme eurosceptic policies floated during the election campaign are unlikely to happen - not least due to the precarious state of the Italian banks.


Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

Faced with poorer infrastructure, dual food standards and what can seem like hectoring from western Europe it is not surprising some central and eastern European member states are rebelling.

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