The miserable French workplace

PARIS • A fellow I know arrived at work recently to find that his company had hired someone new and given the woman his exact job title. Soon afterwards, he said, higher-ups had cut his department's budget and stopped replying to his e-mails.

The man suspects he's headed for that infamous place in French companies known as "le placard", or the closet. Many workers here have permanent contracts that make it very hard to fire them. So some companies resort to an illegal strategy: They try to make someone so miserable, he'll quit. "What happens next is, I'll lose my team and my staff, and therefore I'll have nothing to do," the man predicted. "You still have to come to work every day, but you have no idea why."

Labour laws are the main topic of conversation here. The government has battled unions and other groups for months over a Bill that would, among other things, make it easier to fire people when a company is losing money. This week, short of votes, it forced the Bill through the Lower House by decree (a measure on Thursday to block this move failed, so the Bill will go on to the Senate).

It's obvious the current system isn't working. The Bill's supporters argue that business owners are reluctant to hire because it's so complicated and expensive to fire people when times are bad. And times are pretty bad: France has 10 per cent unemployment, roughly twice the levels in Germany and Britain. For young people, it's around 24 per cent. President Francois Hollande has said he'll run for re-election next year only if he succeeds in reducing unemployment.

While many other European countries have revamped their workplace rules, France has barely budged. The new labour Bill - weakened after long negotiations - wouldn't alter the bifurcated system, in which workers either get a permanent contract called a contrat a duree indeterminee, known as a CDI, or a short-term contract that can be renewed only once or twice. Almost all new jobs have the latter.

And yet it isn't just unions that oppose the Bill. So do more than 60 per cent of the population, who fear the Bill would strip workers of protections without fixing the problem. Young people took to the streets to oppose it, demanding CDI too.

Why are the French so wedded to a failing system?

French students in Toulouse protesting against planned labour reforms last month. Opponents of the reform, billed as an effort to lower France's stubborn 10 per cent unemployment, say it is too pro-business and will threaten workers' rights and deepen job insecurity for young people.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

For starters, they believe that a job is a basic right - guaranteed in the preamble to their Constitution - and that making it easier to fire people is an affront to that. Without a CDI, you're considered naked before the indifferent forces of capitalism.

At one demonstration in Paris, young protesters held a banner warning that they were the generation precaire. They were agitating for the right to grow up. As Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow point out in their new book, The Bonjour Effect, getting a permanent work contract is a rite of adulthood. Without one, it's hard to get a mortgage or car loan, or rent an apartment.

Mainstream economic arguments can't compete. "Basic facts of economic science are completely dismissed," said Mr Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist at Sciences Po. "People don't see that if you let employers take risks, they'll hire more people." Instead, many French people view the workplace as a zero-sum battle between workers and bosses.

Economic debates are also framed as political showdowns. It's hard to separate opposition to the labour Bill from dislike of Mr Hollande, whose approval rating has sunk to 14 per cent. It doesn't help that Mr Hollande was elected on a skewer-the-rich platform (remember the 75 per cent income tax?). By backing the Bill, he now appears to be siding with CEOs.

France's rising political star, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, is a labour reformer too, but at least he presents a coherent world view: He said France needs young people who want to become billionaires.

Like my friend in the placard, even those lucky enough to have CDIs can struggle at work. In one study, workers with CDIs reported more stress than those with short-term contracts, in part because they felt trapped in their jobs. After all, where else would they get another permanent contract?

In a European Working Conditions Survey, 12 per cent of French respondents said they had been bullied or harassed at work in the past month, far more than in any other European country. CDIs alone don't cause harassment, but they make it harder to escape. This problem is at least being aired. The vice-president of France's National Assembly resigned this week following accusations that he had sexually harassed women as far back as 1998 (he denies it). In response, hundreds of politicians and activists published a letter decrying a culture of "omerta", in which victims are told to just carry on.

No matter what the government does, the workplace is becoming less secure. If French taxi drivers are outraged by competition from Uber, what will they do when self-driving cars arrive? "It is not going to get better," warned Mr Jean Tirole, a Frenchman who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in economic science. "The digital society increases uncertainty about the nature of jobs, so in the future, firms will be even more reluctant to make permanent job offers."

I don't want to confront capitalism while naked either. But there's got to be a middle ground between the streets and the closet.


•Pamela Druckerman is the author of Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers The Wisdom Of French Parenting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'The miserable French workplace'. Print Edition | Subscribe