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Macron government launches overhaul of France’s labour laws | World news

Emmanuel Macron’s government has announced a “major and ambitious” transformation of France’s complex labour laws aimed at tackling mass unemployment and making the country more competitive in the global market.

Five decrees have been issued, containing what ministers said were “concrete and major measures” to overhaul and simplify the weighty Code du Travail, which covers every aspect of working life in France.

In an interview before the measures were unveiled on Thursday morning, the French president said the country was “turning the page on three decades of inefficiency”.

French unions gave a mixed but mostly negative response to the changes, which will reduce their influence at company level, make it easier for firms to hire and fire, and will end the jobs-for-life culture that French ministers say is a brake on economic growth.

Decrees are a rarely used constitutional device that enable the government to effect the changes without a parliamentary debate or vote.

The prime minister, Edouard Philippe, described the reforms as “ambitious, balanced and fair” and said they were aimed at dealing with “mass unemployment and repairing the country”. He said they gave France a chance to catch up on many “lost years”.

Philippe said Macron and his centrist government had been given a clear mandate by voters in France’s presidential and legislative elections to reform the Code du Travail.

The government nevertheless engaged in a three-month consultative process with business leaders, the unions and workers’ representatives.

“Despite the urgency of the situation we have listened to and respected and discussed [the changes] with the unions and employers’ organisations” Philippe said on Thursday.

Philippe and the employment minister, Muriel Pènicaud, outlined the four main pillars of the decrees, which they said were the result of hundreds of hours of talks resulting in 200 pages of measures aimed at adapting the code to “a changing world”.

The priority was to ease constraints on small and medium-sized companies, which employ half of the French workforce, by granting them more flexibility to hire and fire, Philippe and Pènicaud said.

In future, firms with fewer than 20 staff will be able to negotiate directly with employees on working terms and conditions, bypassing the national union branch. A cap has been imposed on industrial tribunal payments and the time limit for complaints reduced from two years to one.

Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, said his members were concerned about the removal of the union’s influence, particularly in small and medium-sized firms. Union leaders fear the measures leave workers vulnerable to pressure and bullying by bosses.

“We are disappointed and we have made that disappointment known to the prime minister … Our one aim is to improve the situation of workers … a company is not a proprietorial but a collective entity in which the voice of the worker must be heard,” Berger said after being given details of the decrees.

The CFDT has called for a 10,000-strong workers’ rally on 3 October at a Paris convention centre, but said it would not be taking part in a day of action called by rival union, the more militant CGT, on 12 September.

“We will not be in the streets on 12 September, we will find our own way of being heard,” Berger said.

Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the more hardline union Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force), sounded a conciliatory note on the work law changes. “We have three columns: things we have advanced on, things we have avoided and things we disagree on. The devil is in the detail. There are negotiations to be had and we haven’t finished talking,” he said.

At a news conference, Philippe said the five decrees had to be seen as a whole and not “individual measures that might be considered curious when examined alone”.

In an interview published on Thursday, Macron lamented that France’s unemployment rate of around 9.5% was almost double that of its major European rivals. “We are the only major economy in the European Union that has not defeated mass unemployment for more than three decades,” he told Le Point magazine.

He said the overhaul of the Code du Travail was “a reform of profound change”. “The principal victims of our impotence of the past 30 years faced with mass unemployment are the young and the less qualified,” he added.

Macron said people should not become fixated on the texts and reforms themselves as these were a means to an end: the “liberation of France’s energy”. The changes, he said, would end the constricting of France “squeezed by rules and rights … which believes itself to be a country of liberty”.

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