France wants to make it easier to fire workers so employers will stop harassing them into quitting

The World
Clouds of tear gas surround people near the Invalides monument during clashes between protesters and French police during a demonstration against French labor law reform in Paris. May 12, 2016.

There's a practice in France called being sent to the closet — "le placard."

It's when your employer makes your work life so miserable that you are forced to quit.

“A friend of mine is in the closet right now at his company,” says Pamela Druckerman, an author living in Paris. “His boss has stopped replying to his emails.”

She gives another example of a banker who found that his desk had been moved into a hallway. He gradually realized that his colleagues had been told not to talk to him at all.

“You reach a point where no one can tell you that you’re in the closet, because it’s technically illegal. It’s considered moral harassment,” she says. “But you eventually figure out what is happening. It can last for years.”

Being sent to the closet is a pretty awful practice, but it's something that a number of French employers resort to because it's so hard to fire people legally there.

Many workers in France have contracts called CDIs — contrat à durée indéterminée — or contracts of indeterminate length. Once you have one, you can lose your job only in very limited circumstances.  

But with the French economy struggling, the government is trying to make it a little easier for businesses to lay off staff when times are hard.

It has just pushed reforms through the lower house of Parliament that would allow people to be fired when a company is losing money. The bill still has to go through the Senate before it becomes law.

But the measures have been unpopular with much of the population in France.

A protestor gesticulates during a demonstration against French labour law in Paris. May 12, 2016.
A protestor gesticulates during a demonstration against French labour law in Paris. May 12, 2016.Gonzalo Fuentes

Mass protests have been taking place in cities across the country today and for much of the past week.

“Sixty to 70 percent of the population opposes the new labor law,” says Druckerman. “But interestingly, it’s not just the French labor unions, which we always hear about. They only represent about 10 percent of the workforce. This is a population-wide opposition.”

As well as making it easier to fire people, the wide-ranging bill also covers flexible hours, short-term contracts, working on Sundays and wage negotiations. Opponents fear that these protections are also being watered down.

But the government says that the new measure will reduce unemployment and make it easier to recruit workers when the economy is growing.

In Druckerman’s view, the system at the moment does not work.

“Nobody wants to hire anyone, because when you take someone on, you’re hiring them for life,” she says.

The opposition to the change can be partly explained by the culture of the country, she says.

“People are just so used to this system,” she says. “Society is structured around having a long-term contract. You can’t get a mortgage, a car loan or rent an apartment without one. You can’t take all the steps you would expect to take in your 20s and 30s without a CDI. … It’s a sign that you’re growing up,”

“These youth protesters are in part just saying … we want to go through the passages that our parents have gone through.”

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