French PM says disputed labour bill open to amendment

Bill would make layoffs easier, cap compensation

Reuters — A draft bill to loosen rigid French labour law that has infuriated trade unions and left-wing lawmakers will be open to parliamentary amendment but will go ahead, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Tuesday.

The bill published last week would make layoffs easier, cap compensation for economic redundancies and allow company-level negotiations on reducing overtime pay.

"I'll go through with it to the end," Valls said on RTL radio in response to a business owner, who said he would immediately hire 47 additional staff for his tourism company if he was sure the law would enter into force, supporting Valls' contention that companies will recruit more staff if they can make layoffs more easily.

Valls cited "flexicurity" employment policies in Denmark and Sweden, and German labour reforms as examples of how the planned measures could help bring down France's stubborn 10.6 per cent unemployment rate.

Trade unions ranging from the hardline CGT to the moderate CFDT, which has supported other economic reforms, have denounced the draft and were to meet later on Tuesday to consider a joint protest action possibly including strikes.

Senior cabinet ministers have also voiced concern at aspects of the bill, which challenges French leftist taboos.

Valls declined repeatedly to say whether he would ram the bill through parliament by turning it into a confidence vote, as the government did with an economic reform bill opposed by some leftists last year.

"First of all I want to convince the French people and a majority of lawmakers, first and foremost lawmakers on the left, to adopt this law," he said. "I want to convince our fellow citizens that it's possible to overcome blockages, that we have to reform this country."

Amendments were possible before the cabinet adopts the bill on March 9 and when it goes to parliamentary debate on April 4, he said.

Among the most heavily criticized aspects are measures that would allow companies to make layoffs if a division or a subsidiary suffered a fall in orders or turnover, regardless of the economic health of the overall corporation, and caps on the amount of compensation that labour courts could award.

President Francois Hollande, on a visit to French Polynesia on Monday, indicated to reporters that he was not in favor of using the constitutional device of a confidence vote to cut off parliamentary debate and force the bill through.

Valls rejected suggestions that the bill was electoral suicide for the left ahead of a presidential election next year, saying it did not remove any workers' rights while giving employers greater flexibility.

European Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, a former Socialist finance minister, voiced guarded support for the bill on France-Info radio, saying France badly needed labour reform but the question was how to get the balance between flexibility and job security right.

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