Small Business Has Message for Hollande ; Merchants and Bosses in France Protest Labor Rules They Call Onerous

By Alderman, Liz | International New York Times, December 2, 2014 | Go to article overview

Small Business Has Message for Hollande ; Merchants and Bosses in France Protest Labor Rules They Call Onerous


Alderman, Liz, International New York Times


Owners of small and midsize businesses protested in Paris and Toulouse against what they said were constraints imposed by the Socialist government.

They jammed the boulevards, blowing whistles, tossing firecrackers, wearing locks and chains around their necks and shouting into megaphones: "Enough is enough!"

In France, where protest marches are a well-practiced tradition, it's usually workers who take to the streets. But in twist Monday, thousands of French bosses demonstrated in Paris and Toulouse, the opening act in a weeklong revolt against government regulations and taxes that they say are straitjacketing companies, discouraging hiring and choking the economy.

"We feel like we're being taken hostage," said Laurence Manabre, owner of a home-maintenance business that has 28 workers -- but could employ many more, she said, if not for onerous government- imposed labor rules.

"Between regulations, taxes, new laws, and razor-thin margins, we're being crushed little by little," she said as she marched amid the throng toward the French Finance Ministry, brandishing a bronze lock -- a symbol that hundreds of other bosses, some of them with chains, wore to signify the constraints they said the Socialist government imposes on French businesses.

President Francois Hollande has recently announced measures to show that his government is pro-business, ready to ease France's rigid labor rules and grant tax breaks to companies to stimulate an economy that has suffered nearly stagnant growth and high unemployment for the last two years. He plans to announce a fresh set of proposals next week to encourage more job creation and investment -- an effort spurred, in part, by European Union officials, who have called on France to revamp its economy as a condition for approving its national budget .

But for the heads of the thousands of small and medium-sized businesses -- companies that represent the bulk of French economic activity -- few of Mr. Hollande's efforts and promises so far have borne fruit. Now, amid concerns that changes coming to the French labor code, already approved by the government, will make it harder, rather than easier, to run their businesses, many who had never before engaged in protests have become street radicals.

High on their list of complaints is a measure to take effect next year that would require businesses to calculate whether workers with physically challenging jobs -- whether in construction or retailing or dozens of other categories -- can retire early or obtain reductions in working hours. Companies say the change destabilized their work forces and requires new software and other investments to figure out how much working time counts as "difficult."

Bosses also oppose a new measure requiring part-time hires to work a minimum of 24 hours a week, saying it would diminish their flexibility to adjust to uncertain economic conditions.

And then there are more entrenched parts of the French labor code, which employers said makes it a difficult, lengthy process to lay off employees, and makes bosses reluctant to take on new workers, especially with permanent contracts.

"France has high unemployment," said Ms. Manabre. "But the French labor code is incomprehensible, and it just keeps getting more complex. How can I possibly hire more people?"

On the streets of Paris Monday, some people had little sympathy for the business chiefs' arguments. …

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