The “First Employment Contract” - a stillborn law doomed by non-existent dialogue?

, by Damien Routisseau-Magrou, Fabien Cazenave

The “First Employment Contract” - a stillborn law doomed by non-existent dialogue?

In January 2006 France went through a social conflict of a rare extent after the proposal by the Cabinet of a bill aimed at tackling youth unemployment, the so-called “First Employment Contract” (CPE). The lack of consultation fostered a blockade of such proportions that some journalists called the students, who were involved in the demonstration, the “CPE Generation”.

The aim of this law, as proposed by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was that of giving young people an easier access to the labour market. This proposal followed the “New Employment Contract” (CNE), which had passed a few months before which allowed an SME (small and medium sized enterprises) employer to terminate a contract at any time during the first two years of employment. Despite the opposition of Trade unions, the CNE did not spark much controversy, since it was limited to businesses which employed less than 20 workers. However, this was not so for the CPE, which was to apply to all enterprises.

Previous Governments had tried to introduce similar measures, but de Villepin faced the worst wave of demonstrations since 1995. The main reason for this rejection of the bill was the feeling of instability sensed by the people who felt targeted by the CPE, and who thus felt that the bill would result in less Labour rights for young people

Of course, in France, demonstrations are rather “clichéd”, with young people calling for the revolutions and all. But this time, the conflict was noticed for the exceptional unity that bound the trade unions, and students unions, which lasted throughout the movement. Another novelty was the trans-generational aspect of the demonstrations, with families seen marching together, forming giant protests of up to 3 million people. It was also one of France’s only social conflicts in which the unions had the blessing of the European Trade Union Confederacy.

Unfortunately, what was noticed particularly by European and American media were the incidents that occurred during the demonstrations. It has become a habit to see protesters who have nothing to do with the protest stirring unrest by raiding the anti-riot police until the latter takes charge of the march. Needless to say, this violence has been one of the defects of the conflict, even though it was exogenous to it.

This struggle ended with the CPE being withdrawn, after some hesitation, from de Villepin’s side. The lack of consultation and the need for dialogue were certainly at the root of the conflict, given that PM had not discussed the project with the unions beforehand. Not even the ministers for Education and Social Cohesiveness had been informed of it.

This is all quite disappointing, when one remembers that French politicians call more and more on the Scandinavian model of “flexicurity” for the labour market. The lack of consultation that characterised the drafting of the law was the exact opposite of the methods of our northern counterparts. Moreover, even if the CPE, for instance, was going towards more flexibility, it did not achieve a proper balance between flexibility and security for the worker. The major obstacle is that France does not have a government which discusses first and imposes afterwards, nor does it have unions willing to compromise.

From a Europe-wide standpoint, it is quite inconsistent to call for a European market, when our governments lead different Labour policies without consultation with their European counterparts. It is about time that an actual Political Europe be put in place to allow the EU to implement, in cooperation with national governments, a proper Labour policy.

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