PARIS — Muriel Pénicaud has found a way of subduing France’s combative unions without having to call in riot police: Kill them with consultations.
In an interview with POLITICO, the French labor minister said that before unveiling a radical reform of work rules in late August, she presided over 300 hours of closed-door talks with trade union bosses in her office.
The three-month negotiating marathon — which followed a plan that Pénicaud had designed and submitted to President Emmanuel Macron for approval — allowed her to zero in on union concerns, address them individually and head off conflicts before they exploded into public view.
The result was that the law, France’s most far-reaching reform in decades, hit the books in late October without protests bringing the country to a standstill.
“With the labor law, we mixed speed and intensity for the consultations, which are normally seen as opposites. We won seven to eight months because we wanted to have a structural reform whose effects will play out in the medium to long term, all while maintaining our consultations,” said Pénicaud.
French workers union CGT protests Macron’s labor law reforms in Nantes | Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images
Now Pénicaud, a former HR director for Danone who honed her negotiating skills in the private sector, is training her mind on the next assignment: overhauling France’s job training, apprenticeship and unemployment benefit schemes.
These talks, which aim to modernize the labor market and combat unemployment, involve different players and more complexity. The government will submit a bill to parliament for debate, instead of ramming it through via executive decree as with the labor reform.
But Pénicaud plans to proceed in the same way to get the job done: by holding meticulous, exhaustive negotiations that leave no stone unturned and are carried out in total secrecy.
“There are different methods for each reform but the three trains will enter the station at the same time, in the form of a single bill,” said Pénicaud. Unlike the labor bill, which was passed via decree, this is a “normal piece of legislation. But what it has in common with the labor law is a very deep level of consultations ahead of time.”