France’s small businesses vent fury at unions behind crippling strikes

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France’s small businesses are angry at the crippling strikes and protests spearheaded by unions against proposed reforms to labour laws aimed at liberalising the employment sector.

The impact of widespread industrial action, from public transport strikes to blockades of oil refineries, is being felt acutely by the country’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which represent 99% of the country’s registered businesses and employ just under half of the country’s workforce.

They are not happy. Ongoing transport strikes have caused workers to arrive late or not at all, and drivers have struggled to fill their petrol tanks after unions blockaded fuel depots. Meanwhile, many small business owners think the public has been misled into believing that all employers are greedy and exploitative.

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Not all of the strikes taking place this week are over labour reforms. National rail operator SNCF is also striking over working conditions, while Air France pilots have called for industrial action in a dispute over restructuring the national carrier.

But it is the proposed changes to France’s labour law – which seek to give businesses greater flexibility over hiring and firing, and allow larger companies to renegotiate work hours directly with employees instead of going through the unions – that have been put front and centre by the powerful CGT union, which is backing industrial action across the board.

Leaders of several SMEs, which are not obliged to have union representatives, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the impact of the strikes which they say are hurting their profits (and therefore the job security of their employees), while damaging France’s reputation.

They were overtly critical of the CGT, which they said was dictatorial and “stuck in the past”, unwilling to adapt to an ever-evolving business landscape while unfairly demonising the patronat (bosses) as exploitative.

‘There is a suspicion of success’

Julien Leclercq is head of the Com’Presse communications agency and regularly updates a blog ironically titled “Salaud de patron” (Bastard boss), in which he rails at what he considers the unfair stigmatisation of employers.

“There is too much violence, too many angry clichés about employers,” he told FRANCE 24. “It is a very sad situation for entrepreneurs like me.”

The CGT, he said, was “only interested in dominating headlines and getting people to talk about them”. He cited an incident on May 26, when union members working at the printing presses refused to publish any national newspapers (apart from the Communist “Humanité”) that had declined to publish an opinion piece by the union’s leader, Philippe Martinez.

“In many ways, SMEs are leading the charge in building a more prosperous France,” he said. “But public misunderstandings about the nature of employment, led by the CGT, are holding us back,” he said.

Businesses owners “feel lost in the wilderness”, he added. “We don’t even use the term ‘patron’ to describe ourselves anymore because it carries such negative connotations.”

Leclercq said the CGT’s arguments were “lost in a distant past, telling young people that to work is to suffer, and that they must at all times be protected from exploitation”.

“France has many aspiring entrepreneurs, with lots of ideas, but sadly there is a negative public opinion about aspiration for success,” he said. “The CGT, in my opinion, exemplifies this. The employment law they are so angry about is hardly revolutionary. If anything, it lacks enough ambition to really lift France out of the doldrums.”

‘Hang the bosses’

Sonia, who asked FRANCE 24 not to publish her family name or the name of her business, runs a small publishing firm where she employs 10 people.

In mid-May, she wrote a post on Facebook after seeing a picture of two young protesters holding placards declaring, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y pend les patrons” (altering the words of a popular French song to read, “On the bridge at Avignon, we hang the bosses”).The post garnered nearly 75,000 “likes”.

“Change is a reality, it is happening, and the relationship between employers and employees is rapidly evolving for the better,” she said.

“But astonishingly, young people are still being fed the message that all bosses are bad,” she lamented. “They don’t seem to be aware that all SMEs are led by a boss, and that independent workers are their own bosses.”

“More and more of the people I work with choose to be independent workers because they don’t want to be shackled to the kind of meaningless full-time work that unions like the CGT want to protect,” she added.

The Euro 2016 football championships, which unions have threatened to disrupt with strike actions, is due to begin in France on June 10.

“One way or the other, the Euro 2016 will force a resolution,” she said, hinting that the unions could lose vital public support if they insist on ruining an event that many think should showcase the best of France. “The French will not accept this opportunity being undermined.”

‘Much ado about nothing’

Marc Dagher is the founder of DT Experts, a small financial analysis firm that provides financial advice to traders.

He told FRANCE 24 that he was determined to keep his business in France, despite the “depressing sight of so many bright minds deciding that this is the worst environment in which to start a business and choosing to go abroad instead”.

“Successive governments, who only care about being re-elected, have done nothing to modernise the economy or the jobs market,” he said. “Now they are being held hostage by the unions, a tiny minority of the workforce, who are even more stuck in the past.”

He said the news media were fuelling the discontent, and that many demonstrators didn’t fully understand the reforms they were protesting against.

“The media give this hollow and damaging fight between the politicians and the unions all the air time, and the public follows it blindly. We have young people, students, out there protesting against an employment law that most of them haven’t even read,” he added.

“If they did, they would see it doesn’t do much besides decentralising negotiations between employers and their workers. It’s much ado about nothing. If we are going to really improve things, we need to find new ways of working collectively for the common good. The unions are actively working against the common good while the government sits on its hands. France needs change, but everyone seems to be too scared to face this reality.”

The ‘death throes’ of the CGT

Clément De Souza runs a restaurant furniture supply company, Access-Sit, that has recently branched out into designing and building co-working spaces, which are increasingly used by France’s growing army of young entrepreneurs.

The father of five refers to his 20 employees as “collaborators” and runs what is called an “Entreprise Libéré” in which workers have a greater say in the management of the company.

“The strikes have affected us, as suppliers have been unable to fulfil orders, and as a result we risk falling behind,” he said. “Across the company there is a feeling of total incomprehension at these strikes. The CGT is bringing France to its knees, threatening small businesses who are the drivers for future employment.”

“And why shouldn’t big companies be able to negotiate directly with their employees?” he asked, referring to a clause in the proposed employment law that would allow companies to reach agreements with their staff over working conditions – including setting maximum working hours and overtime pay – without the need to negotiate with unions.

“The only losers here are the unions. Fundamentally, these strikes against the employment law are all about the survival of the CGT. If employees are able to negotiate directly with their employers, what is the point of the unions?”

“A handful of CGT union members blocked refineries, organised strikes at nuclear power stations, and misled people into believing we are going back to the 19th century,” he added.

“That this is happening in the 21st century, when everyone is desperate to work and to achieve something, is absolutely crazy. It’s the CGT that is stuck in the 19th century, obstinately preventing this country from reinventing itself. All because this union is in its death throes and is desperate to survive. It is absurd. It is indecent. And in the long run, it isn’t going to work.”