France’s influential unions have said workers will bear the brunt of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans for pension and employment reform. In his first major speech on social policy, Sarkozy vowed to overhaul the country’s state welfare system in order to boost the economy. “We need to go much further and relax some of the rules governing the 35-hour working week, which are among the most complex in the world,” Sarkozy told correspondents.
“This means we must reform the contract of employment. Everyone knows this but no one has admitted it. We can no longer be restricted by an abstract, judicial equivalent of the Maginot line”. Sarkozy, who has been working furiously to push through reforms since his election in May, says he wants the changes agreed by the end of the year.
That is not possible, according to Francois Chérèque from the CFDT union: “The timetable they are suggesting is unworkable. France has never undertaken five far-reaching social reforms at the same time. Trying to do too much, too quickly, means it will be a botched job!”
Previous attempts to reform state industries like the SNCF have been withdrawn after waves of protests. Bernard Thibault from the CGT union has hinted at further disruption: “I imagine that some workers, when the full details come out, will be tempted to protest to change this situation.”
Sarkozy wants to trim the privileged packages given to public sector workers who have been able to retire early and with better pensions than their private sector counterparts. He has, however, agreed to consult with unions and employers on a firm-by-firm basis.