In recent days, French president François Hollande has begun what is perhaps the most important aspect of this presidency, a reform of the French labour market and of capital-labour relations more generally. Typically, very general ideas about these changes were discussed during the presidential campaign but no firm commitments one way or the other were made by Hollande as candidate, not least for fear of angering the unions. Now that he commands a majority in the national parliament and is in a position to push through changes, we can see more clearly the social content of the Hollande presidency. Under conditions of crisis, and in the name of boosting French competitiveness, it is likely Hollande will do something similar to what Gerhard Schroder did in Germany, namely a flexibilisation of labour laws and a shift in the burden of funding social insurance from capital to labour. How hard Hollande will push is unclear but it does seem that history is repeating itself in France: as with Mitterrand, reforms hostile to labour are being undertaken by the left, not by the right.
His method and style are consensual and collaborative. In place of the immediacy and decrees typical of his predecessor, Hollande has organized a conference bringing together all the different representatives of business and labour in France. No firm commitments are to be made immediately. Rather, on key issues commissions have been set up that will discuss proposals and over the course of a year or so will come up concrete reforms. This contrasts also with Lionel Jospin, former socialist prime minister, who had angered business leaders back in 1997 by declaring at the end of a day of discussions the introduction of the controversial 35 hours week. Hollande’s approach is to keep everyone on board and introduce reforms only gradually.
Hollande may have attracted attention from outside of France as a socialist elected after a campaign where he declared “the world of finance” to be his enemy and where he proposed – remarkably off the cuff for such an important policy – to tax at 75% France’s highest earning individuals. But the reality of political change in France is elsewhere. Traditional leftwing parties, like the Front de Gauche, did far less well than many had expected, suggesting that the opportunity for reform à la Schroder has come in France. The form of his consultations is classically corporatist, with labour and business leaders fully represented in ongoing discussions with the state. As in Germany, the critical issue will be whether or not Hollande is able to secure the support of the unions to push through his proposed changes. The German government’s close relationship with the unions was what enabled the country to undertake its internal devaluation in the early 2000s, the source of its present day competitiveness. Keeping the unions on board, as well as the business groups, is essential for Hollande.
The actual substance of the changes is not yet certain but the ideas being floated make clear that the shift in the balance of forces within society is going against organized labour. One key possibility is that the cost of paying for social insurance, which in France lies heavily on business and is a clear legacy of postwar social democracy, may be increasingly levied on workers. This changes the balance between private wealth and public claims on that wealth. At present, there seems little by way of social mobilisation in France – or in the positions taken by unions – to suggest that such a shift will be resisted. The previous Sarkozy government had planned a similar shift but through an increase in VAT, the so-called social VAT, which unions had opposed unanimously. Hollande’s government is thinking instead in terms of raising what is called the CSG (contribution sociale generalise – a tax paid by all, used to finance health insurance, pensions, welfare payments to family etc.), a proposal that currently divides unions, some are in favour and some not. The CSG was already introduced back in 1990 as a way of generalizing the cost of social insurance which up until then had been levied uniquely on salaries and its extension today is in line with these earlier changes. The position of business is clear: unless such a move is made, competitiveness will continue to decline and jobs will be lost. With thousands of jobs in line to disappear as companies – from automobiles to big pharma – shed labour, the pressure on the government to lessen these costs on businesses is very high.
The situation in France is thus a confusing one. A superficial attack on business through capping of salaries in public sectors enterprises and levying a high tax rate for high-earning footballers and other stars, exists alongside a much more substantial reduction in claims the state makes on privately generated wealth. Social insurance, in France, is being transformed. From being something that belongs to society as a whole, and is based on a coercive transfer of wealth from the private to the public purse, it is now a good enjoyed by individuals and one that they need to pay for themselves. What is being given up here is the idea that markets generate systematic inequalities that should be righted through public intervention. From social insurance as a critique of capitalism to social insurance as a private good purchased by individuals through their own contributions. We aren’t there just yet but this is the direction in which France is heading.