France’s Socialist government will hold a round of negotiations this week aimed at salvaging its proposed labour reforms, as it faces fierce opposition against the draft bill and the spectre of street protests on Wednesday.

 

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Sunday pledged to make “improvements” to the text, while insisting he would not commit “blackmail” by threatening to resign over the law change.

 

The reforms, which would put almost all aspects of the country’s strictly codified labour relations up for negotiation between employers and unions, have infuriated labour unions and prompted a massively followed online petition.

 

Valls, who will on Monday launch a round of meetings with union and business leaders, told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that the draft should be “improved” and “completed”, but added: “What we cannot do is maintain the status quo.”

 

‘More transparency, more protection’

 

But the Force Ouvrière union said a revision was out of the question, repeating its demand that the proposed reforms be scrapped altogether.

 

“It’s not one, two or a few articles that need to be modified but the entire text that won’t do,” Pascal Pavageau, the FO’s economy pointman, said Sunday. Rather than “negotiate the weight of the ball and the length of the chain… we call on [Valls] to withdraw this text,” he said.

 

Unveiled in mid-February, the El Khomri law, which is named after Economy Minister Myriam El Khomri, is designed to give employers more flexibility in hiring and firing, but critics say it unduly threatens job security.

 

On Sunday Valls insisted: “This labour law means more transparency for businesses and more protection for employees.”

 

When asked about rumours that he could put at stake his position in the government if the reforms are not passed, Valls said: “I never did and I will not blackmail to resign”.

 

And he dismissed suggestions last week that the government could push the reforms through by resorting to a manoeuvre to bypass parliament, saying the law would be “brought to fruition with the necessary changes”.

 

The prime minister faces strong opposition from the left flank of his own Socialist Party, while seven in 10 French people are opposed to the changes, according to a poll.

 

A number of organisations including youth groups have called demonstrations for Wednesday and later in the month to protest against the plans, which many think will fail to create jobs.

 

A million signatures

 

At 25 percent, youth unemployment in France is among the highest in Europe.

 

The online petition titled “Labour Law: No Thanks”, initiated by 35-year-old feminist Caroline de Haas, has attracted more than a million signatures, but it is a wild card in the mix, since it is unclear what will come of the initiative.

 

The reforms are part of efforts to combat stubborn unemployment in a country where employers are loath to take on permanent workers because of stiff obstacles to laying them off in lean times.

 

France, the eurozone’s second largest economy, is under pressure from the European Commission to bring down labour costs as well as reduce its 10.2 joblessness rate.

 

Currently French companies have to justify in court plans to shed workers due to an economic downturn, a process they say makes them reluctant to hire in the first place.

 

The reform spells out simple conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses, as sufficient cause for shedding staff.

 

The law would also allow employers to work around unions and negotiate working conditions such as overtime pay and maximum working hours directly with their employees.

 

It would also cap the total amount of damages claims they may have to pay in case of litigation.

 

The proposals were initially set to be submitted to the cabinet on Wednesday, but in the face of the opposition last week this date was shifted to March 24.

 

University and high school student groups as well as labour unions have called for protests on Wednesday, which has also been designated for work stoppages by the Paris Metro and the French national rail company SNCF, upset over working conditions.

 

France 24