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PARIS – One by one, countries across Europe have stripped away worker protections to confront today's borderless economy and the online age. France has been the main holdout — until now.
Socialist President Francois Hollande faces one of the biggest tests of his term Thursday for trying to change the way France views work. His government is trying to force a labor law through parliament including longer workdays, easier layoffs, weaker unions, but it must survive a no-confidence vote first.
It's the boldest reform any French government left or right has tried in years, and has unleashed daily, often-violent protests from wine country to the troubled suburbs. Those protests, and legislative gridlock, prompted the government to use a special measure to push the bill through without a vote at lower house of parliament.
The conservative opposition objected, prompting a no-confidence vote Thursday, set to take place just after thousands are expected to march through nearby Left Bank streets. The legislation is not technically adopted unless the government wins that vote.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his government are likely to survive, but the labor standoff has torn apart the Socialists and further damaged their weak chances of keeping the presidency and legislative control in next year's elections.
The bill will then need to be debated at the Senate.
Ironically, the French bill is relatively modest, especially after the government softened it to meet union demands.
It will not abolish the 35-hour workweek, but will allow companies to negotiate deals for up to 48 hours a week or 12-hour shifts. It will change rules for layoffs in companies, to create more flexibility during downturns — under conditions depending on the size of the businesses.
It even adds some new protections — a "right to disconnect" from emails and smartphones negotiated with employers — and a new 461-euro ($527) allowance for young job-seekers.
Germany rebuilt its labor system in the early 2000s; Spain and Italy re-hauled their labor markets recent debt crises. Yet in France, even small changes prompt outsized anger.
"France is trying to do the bare minimum, and what other countries" have already done, said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. But "politically it seems almost impossible to do this without street protests."
Critics see the bill as a symbol of something much bigger, a surrender to a heartless, globalized world, and a fundamental betrayal of hard-fought worker protections and a way of life that France has long prided itself on.
Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri acknowledged that the government made "mistakes" in how it handled the reform and explained it to voters. But she insisted in an interview published Thursday in Directmatin that it will help France better compete in "the world of today."
The government hopes lures companies to invest in France and hire — especially young people, bearing the brunt of chronic 10 percent unemployment. Yet among its fiercest critics are the young.
"They're incredibly conservative ... they don't understand the world has changed. If you want companies to hire, you need to make it easier to fire. That is a lesson that the Spanish and Italians learned, and the Germans learned," Grant said.
Unions are not letting go, threatening widespread strikes if the bill is finalized.
The protests are "a reaction against an obscene system of abuse of power by the oligarchy," far left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former presidential candidate who says the bill is a gift to CEOs and will worsen inequality, wrote on his blog. "This pillaging of the country by a caste that fattened itself on the back of workers has lasted long enough."