France strikes: Stench of garbage looms over Euro 2016

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CNN's Jim Bitterman: Many people are asking why the French won't stop whining and get to work

There is probably never a good time to attempt reforms here, writes Bitterman

Paris, France CNN  — 

At this very moment, French transport workers are striking against railroads and airlines. Fuel depots and refineries have been blocked for weeks, garbage workers are refusing to pick up trash, and there has been a surprise blockade of supply trucks at the main food terminal for the Paris region.

The country is hardly putting on its best face for the millions of football fans heading here for the European Championship. And many people are asking why the French won’t stop whining and get to work.

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Well, the explanation at the center of it all is the government’s attempt to reform the country’s labor laws. The timing of this idea was especially inept given what is at stake this summer for the country’s image, already suffering from the effects of last year’s terror attacks.

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Frankly, there is probably never a good time to attempt reforms here. Over nearly four decades of reporting from France, I have watched governments from both the right and left confront workers with all sorts of changes to all sorts of labor laws: pension reform, working hours, benefits and a host of others.

At times, there have been some small victories for the governments involved. But for the most part, the results have followed Newton’s first law of motion: inertia.

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Dining with the devil

There are a number of reasons for this. First, despite how it looks on the surface, this country is deeply conservative. Change is viewed by many with suspicion at best, open hostility at worst. Reform, one French observer wrote recently, is viewed as dining with the devil.

Another explanation is the concept of “droits acquis,” or acquired rights – a concept deeply ingrained in the national psyche. It is widely felt that any rights once obtained must never be abandoned. This doesn’t just apply to work rules but in every area of social interaction.

Yet another problem for reform-minded governments are the unions, but perhaps not quite in the way we might think. Again, despite appearances to the contrary, the unions by the numbers are not all that strong. According to OECD reports from 2014, there are less than half as many trade union members in France (7.7 percent) than in the United Kingdom (25.1 percent) and about the same percentage of union representation as in the U.S. (10.7 percent).

The difference between France and other countries is the sectors in which unionization is concentrated. Union workers In France are often found in critical areas, such as transportation and energy production. If they decide to strike they can inflict much pain, very quickly.

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What’s more, union leaders in recent confrontations have augmented their protest power by successfully encouraging students and young people to join in. And they are strengthened by the past and present ties unions have to political parties – something not necessarily found elsewhere.

Difficult place to do business

But the difficulties with reforming France do not stop there. There are dozens of other attitudes and realities that impede change, such as the longstanding mistrust between many employees and their employers; the zero-sum notion that every gain for the boss is a loss for the workers; the traditional disdain of bragging wealth and the “dirigiste” (directed by the state) belief that governments, not markets, should be in charge of the economy.

This brings us to the current set of proposed reforms to the labor laws. Their provisions include making it easier for employers to layoff workers, reduce overtime pay, increase working hours and diminish the strength of two of the unions which have been the most intractable in past confrontations.

The government believes the reforms will increase employment because many prospective employers currently shy away from creating jobs if workers have too many rights.

Many strikers say their rights cannot just be handed away to profit-hungry employers. And some employers say that even if the government perseveres and pushes the new law, it will not go far enough to seriously increase employment.

Once again, the country is going through a very public conflict between workforce and government that may, in the end, lead to some economic reforms. But whether right or wrong, it leaves the impression that France is a difficult place to do business.