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French labor system likely to undergo change

Unions and businesses are expected to go along with proposals for greater flexibility.

January 28, 2008|Angela Doland | The Associated Press

PARIS — Mariam, a 28-year-old retail chain employee, went to great lengths to get fired.

Knowing she would be ineligible for unemployment payments if she simply quit, Mariam asked her company to fire her, but she was turned down. Then she simply stopped showing up for work. Her wish was granted at last -- she was fired, went on the dole and found a new job six months later.

Soon, such convoluted yet surprisingly common schemes may be a thing of the past. An unusual new proposal, prompted by President Nicolas Sarkozy's push for a more flexible labor market, would allow employees to get unemployment payments even if they quit.

Business and government officials brush off questions about whether this could encourage more people to go on the dole. They insist that a variety of new reforms will create jobs and cut joblessness in a labor market tainted by deception and inertia.

Lawyers and observers of France's business world say people often ask their bosses to fire them, instead of quitting unsatisfying jobs, because they're afraid of losing the safety net of unemployment payments and terrified of not finding another job soon. The jobless rate stands at 8.3%; the average length of unemployment is more than nine months.

Schemes like Mariam's are a symptom of how those fears have made workers risk-averse, and of just how much France's rigid labor market needs to change. (Mariam asked to be identified by her middle name only because she lied to her new employer about how she left her last job.)

The new proposal is at the heart of a plan hammered out over four months of negotiations between labor unions and business leaders at the urging of conservative Sarkozy. It's inspired by Denmark's successful model of "flexicurity" -- liberal firing and hiring laws, coupled with generous protections for workers, that have helped bring its unemployment rate to 2.8%.

To counteract the new protections for workers in France, companies will get more flexibility, such as longer trial periods for new hires. The government says the plan is a step in simplifying labor laws.

Enough unions have backed the plan this month for it to go forward, a rare instance of French labor reforms materializing without street protests, and a sign that Sarkozy has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors about the danger of pushing reforms through without giving unions their say.

The French employers' federation, MEDEF, hopes that the plan will curb some of the mutual suspicion in the employer-employee relationship and cut down on the court battles that often develop over terminated contracts in France.

"We have all recognized that there are moments in the life of a company when the employer and the employee see that things aren't working out or it's time to move on to something else," said Laurence Parisot, head of MEDEF. "In such a situation, why not imagine finding a non-conflictual solution, because there is no conflict?"

Under the plan, an employee and an employer could agree to separate, and the regional labor official would rubber-stamp their deal. Besides unemployment benefits, workers would also qualify for a small lump sum based on their salary and the number of years they worked for the company.

The government, which has praised the plan, hopes to put it in a bill to parliament before this summer.

In the meantime, Internet message boards still abound with advice for people unhappy with their jobs under titles such as "How to get fired." Quitting is seen as a last resort.

Many people seek advice on how to ask their bosses to fire them on a phony pretext so they can collect unemployment money. Some bosses accept and make a request in turn -- a signed pledge from the employee not to go court with a complaint over the termination.

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