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World

Macron Pushes Changes To French Labor Laws

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right, we know Social Security is the third rail of American politics. In France, the third rail is the country's labor code. And President Emmanuel Macron just touched it. Yesterday, he unveiled changes meant to make the French labor market more flexible, hoping it will help with unemployment. Parliament authorized him to push through the changes by executive order. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Julien.

JULIEN COULON: How are you?

BEARDSLEY: High-tech entrepreneur Julien Coulon is exuberant these days. He says for the first time in years, he's excited about the direction his country is heading thanks to President Emmanuel Macron.

COLUON: He brought to the country so much passion, so much enthusiasm. It's a big hope for France, a big hope for Europe.

My father is an architect.

BEARDSLEY: Coulon shows me around his company, which has grown from a startup into a global firm that helps Internet-based companies like Twitter more efficiently navigate dense web traffic. Coulon's viewpoint is shared by France's business class which sees Macron's labor market reform as a new start for the country. Now there will be a ceiling on how much a company can be forced to pay for firing an employee without cause. Coulon says employee lawsuits in labor court have been an impediment to hiring for a long time.

COLUON: You could be a small company, and the employee could ask 1 million in dollars of indemnity. It doesn't mean that the tribunal will give it to you. Maybe he will give you 10,000. But that situation makes it that an enterprise. You have to put that money and put it on the bank account, and you couldn't use it.

BEARDSLEY: Every minute detail of company life in France has been ruled for decades by an onerous tome, the French labor code. Unions revere it. Employers revile it.

GILBERT CETTE: The labor code is a 3,500-page book in France. Nobody of course can know it by heart. It's a very complex legal code which in intervenes in all aspects of economic life.

BEARDSLEY: That's Gilbert Cette, professor of economics at the university of Aix-en-Provence. He says Macron is bypassing the code altogether by allowing bosses and employees to now negotiate working conditions at the company level. This will allow each firm to adopt what suits it best and not be bogged down by negotiations with entrenched national unions.

Bonjour.

STEPHANE FUSTEC: Bonjour. Voulez-vous un cafe, de l'eau?

BEARDSLEY: Non.

Stephane Fustec is with the CGT, the union most adamantly opposed to Macron's agenda. He says the work code protects hard-won workers' rights and should not be discarded.

FUSTEC: (Through interpreter) We fear working on Sunday may now become a normal thing, not an exception. Opening Sunday doesn't boost the economy. It just creates temporary jobs with no protection. And Sunday's the only day people have off together to spend time with their families. It's important to preserve it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in French).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: Previous French presidents have abandoned attempts to loosen the country's rigid labor market in the face of weeks and sometimes months of strikes and street protests. But Pierre Gattaz, head of the French small- and medium-sized business association, believes things will be different for Macron.

PIERRE GATTAZ: People know the program and his intention of reforming France quick as possible in the labor law. And he's pro-business. He's pro-globalization of the economy. He's pro-euro. He has been elected on this program.

BEARDSLEY: Opponents of the labor reform say Macron does not have a mandate to flout the work code and gut the country's cherished social protections. They say many people voted for Macron simply to stop his opponent, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, from being elected. One thing everyone agrees upon - if Macron isn't able to bring down unemployment, Le Pen will win next time.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ARKENSTONE'S "COMPTINE D'UN AUTRE ETE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.