I KNOW some readers think I exaggerate when I hint that France is heading for a catastrophe under François Hollande, and is increasingly ungovernable.
But when one looks at the crisis, largely self-inflicted, of the reform of labour laws, one sees just how the country is stuck in another era, not just before globalisation but also, it sometimes feels, before the invention of the steam engine.
Socialists of both parties in France have piled law upon law, regulation upon regulation, to buy off this-and-that vested interest over many years, until France has reached the stage where its labour market is sclerotic and is doing more than almost any other factor to wreck the economy.
At the heart of the problem is the Code du Travail, the huge red compendium of labour laws and regulations. When I say “huge” I do not exaggerate either: the latest edition is 3,689 pages. Le Monde has pointed out that unemployment increases proportionately with the growth of the code. In 1990, when there were a million out of work, it was a thousand pages long; in 2000, when there were two million jobless, it had 2,000 pages. It reached 3,000 pages in 2010, in time to match three million out of work. The Hollande regime has piled on the pages, and France is well on course for 4,000 – and, at this rate, 4m unemployed – by 2020.
The government has now realised this absurd law has to be reformed: but, with typical incompetence, M Hollande has chosen a very junior politician of limited experience to undertake this almost suicidal task. She is Myriam El Khomri, who was appointed Ministre du Travail last September after an almost invisible career in Parisian local government and in a junior job overseeing urban affairs, youth and sport.
It was suspected when she was appointed that she had the job on a box-ticking basis, being a woman and a member of an ethnic minority: she suffered racist and sexist abuse in social media. She and her president are now in the position of having their intentions praised by the right-ofcentre and vilified by their own comrades.
The measure of Mme El Khomri will be if she manages to turn the tide of socialist regulation.
France’s unions have begun a programme of days of action – or rather, inaction, since they entail widespread strikes – to try to stop any reform of the Code du Travail.
They are whipped up not least by the main student union, UNEF, which is highly paradoxical: one reason why so many young people find it so hard to get a job in France is that, once hired, it is almost impossible for their employer to sack them.
The planned reforms would, among other things, make it easier to fire staff, albeit for “economic” reasons rather than because of ineptitude, laziness or incompetence.
The students stoking the fires of protest seem not to understand that this is a means of helping them get a job, although perhaps many would rather settle for a lifetime of agitation funded by the country’s comparatively lavish social security system.
The law also challenges one of the sacred cows of France’s working practices – and one of the reasons for its dismal economic performance – the 35-hour week, which has sparked outrage among trade unionists and deputies from the Parti Socialiste.
In some versions it would also limit payments to dismissed staff, bringing France into line with practices in other EU countries, including Britain. One PS deputy, Yann Galut, responded to the threat to the 35-hour week by promising Mme El Khomri “an epic parliamentary battle”.
It is not as if she is promising to scrap la loi Aubry– the law that enforces the 35-hour week – altogether: the worst that will happen is employers asking people to work up to 46 hours in no more than 16 weeks of the year, properly remunerated.
Yet even this causes meltdown. So well might one ask whether Mme El Khomri is up to it. It is unlikely, in the present mood, General de Gaulle would have been up to it.
Although the right are endorsing the plan they are as much to blame as the present government: in their 17 years in power, from 1995 to 2012, they did nothing to reverse the over-regulation of the Labour market: and indeed when attempts were made under both Chirac and Sarkozy to do so, the government retreated at the first sign of serious resistance.
Given the immense weakness of M Hollande, it is hard to imagine any different outcome this time.
Much scorn is poured on what French politicians of both left and right call “Anglo-Saxon economics”, but such policies – deregulation and allowing markets to operate unencumbered as far as possible – accounts for why countries such as Britain, the US and Germany are performing so much better economically than France is.
France’s inability to undertake structural reforms is one of the causes of the growing estrangement from Germany, with France increasingly adopting what Le Figaro recently called the attitude of a “back seat driver” in an EU it has allowed Germany to dominate.
Britain was in the same position in 1979. Confrontation with the vested interests that caused the sclerosis – not just the unions, but white-collar professions who suited themselves rather than customers – was inevitable, and unpleasant. But the establishment of a properly-functioning economy was impossible without it.
France is often depicted as uniquely difficult to reform because of the propensity of its people to take to the barricades and rip up cobblestones. This idea must be tested. If Mme El Khomri fails, it will not be her political career alone that is wheeled off to the rue Morgue.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the
Daily and Sunday Telegraphs