Labour protests raise doubts over France’s EU vote

Labour protests raise doubts over France’s EU vote

Financial Times
February 7, 2005

By John Thornhill in Paris

The French government said yesterday it would not retreat from its
determination to loosen the 35-hour working week, in spite of mass
opposition in 118 protest marches across the country on Saturday.

But some officials expressed concern that the fierce fight to extend
the length of the working week could galvanise many members of the
left into rejecting Europe’s constitutional treaty when it is put to a
national referendum, before the summer.

The government’s concerns were heightened last week when the
“parliament” of the CGT trade union, one of France’s biggest, voted
against the European constitution, claiming it was too “liberal”.

Saturday’s marches, which attracted 321,000-600,000 protesters
according to different counts, were led by some of France’s biggest
trade unions as part of their fight to preserve the statutory
35-working week. This reduction in hours has been hailed by the left
as the greatest achievement of the previous Socialist government.

Jean-François Copé, government spokesman, said the government had no
intention of withdrawing a law that gave workers greater
liberties. The draft law, allowing employees to work longer hours so
long as they reached a collective accord with their employers, would
be further debated in the lower house of parliament today.

The government commands a clear majority in parliament and is expected
to carry its draft law, which it argues is essential to render the
eurozone’s second biggest economy more competitive. A recent report by
Michel Camdessus, former IMF head, concluded that the chief reason for
the economy’s performance was its “work deficit”.

Many CGT members on Saturday’s march in Paris carried placards
rejecting the government’s vision of Europe and calling for stronger
workers’ rights. “It is impossible for a member country to revise this
constitution, so I am going to vote against it,” said Raphael Darmon,
sporting CGT and anti-constitution stickers as he demonstrated in
Place de la Nation. “France has never adopted a constitution in the
past that it cannot revise.”

Patrick Devedjian, industry minister, said a “coagulation of
discontents” among the left was a “worry” when considering the
referendum. And he appealed to François Hollande, leader of the
Socialist party, which has already held an internal vote in favour of
the constitution, not to play with fire in supporting the mass

Mr Devedjian’s fears appeared to be reinforced by an opinion poll
yesterday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showing that 46 per
cent of voters remained undecided on the constitution. The main
reasons for rejecting the treaty, among respondents intending to vote
No, were listed as concern about Europe becoming “too liberal”, the
general social and economic situation in France, and opposition to
opening accession talks with Turkey.