French workers get fewer protections under new labor law

PARIS (AP) — French workers lost some of their famed labor protections Wednesday, as the government tries to keep up with the global economy by weakening union powers and giving employers more freedom to fire people and lengthen their hours.

It was a bitter victory for President Francois Hollande. The bill unleashed months of violent protests and tore apart his Socialist Party, and the government had to force it through Parliament without a vote. And conservative critics say it doesn’t go far enough and won’t make a difference.

But for France, it’s still a watershed moment. Here are some key things in the new law:



The bill formally maintains the 35-hour workweek, but allows companies to organize alternative working time. Workers would be able to put in a 46-hour workweek, and up to 12-hour shifts, during a temporary period. In case of “exceptional circumstances,” employees could work up to 60 hours a week. The changes are aimed at allowing companies to adapt to business booms and off-peak periods. One measure allows some workers to give up days off in exchange for higher salaries.



The most sensitive part of the reform is a measure allowing businesses not to follow industry-wide union agreements if they have their own specific company deal instead — as long as it is negotiated with union representatives. Lawmakers compromised on some aspects of this measure, but labor unions still fear companies will use it to exploit their workers.



Shedding workers is complex in France and cited as a big reason employers hesitate to hire people on long-term contracts. The bill spells out more clearly the motives allowing layoffs in businesses of less than 300 employees in case of financial difficulties — such as a drop in orders, or lower revenue for a certain number of quarters. The idea is to limit lawsuits from fired employees and create more flexibility for businesses.



While some worker protections were reduced in the law, one 21st-century protection was added: The law aims at helping employees apply their “right to disconnect.” Companies of more than 50 people would need to negotiate a “charter of good conduct” with union representatives. The text would detail the hours, usually in the evening and over the weekend, when employees are not expected to be connected to their “digital tools,” from emails to smartphones and laptops.