Opposing demonstrations over 35-hour week

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Two major demonstrations over the reduction of working time were held in Paris on 4 October 1999, in the run-up to the presentation of France's second 35-hour week law to parliament. However, the demonstrations, organised by the MEDEF employers' confederation and the CGT trade union confederation, had opposing objectives.

On 2 September 1999, on the eve of its summer conference (FR9909109N), the executive committee of MEDEF, France's main employers' organisation, decided to hold a national demonstration in Paris against the 35-hour week. The context was the bill on the second law on the 35-hour working week, presented by Martine Aubry, the Minister for Employment and Solidarity, which was due to be placed before parliament in mid-October. The first law on the 35-hour week, which was adopted in June 1998 (FR9806113F), provided for the introduction of a statutory 35-hour week from January 2000 (2002 for smaller companies) and encouraged the social partners to negotiate on this issue at company and sector level. The second law will set out more detailed legal provisions on the new working time regime (FR9910197N).

MEDEF held its demonstration on 4 October. The participation of members of CGPME (small and medium-sized companies), FNSEA (farmers) and UNAPL (liberal professions) meant that the demonstration was 25,000-30,000 strong. MEDEF and its chair, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, had a twofold objective:

  • calling on the government to ensure that the bill tabled before the National Assembly in mid-October would not be more rigid than the bill previously adopted by the cabinet; and
  • providing a forum for employers, particularly those from small and medium-sized companies, to air their grievances. Nearly 200,000 small and medium-sized company heads had signed a MEDEF petition against the reduction of the working week advocated by the government.

In the opinion of the majority of observers, the fact that MEDEF rallied 25,000 people, possibly more, to its demonstration was a success for the organisation. Such levels of employer mobilisation had not been witnessed since 1982.

The CGT trade union confederation also chose 4 October for demonstrations over working time reductions throughout the country and a rally in Paris. General secretary Bernard Thibault said that the aim was to to "secure improvements to the bill" and "to prevent MEDEF from hogging the limelight on this issue." The other nationally representative union confederations (CFDT, CGT, CFE-CGC and CGT-FO) refused to join the CGT action, because of differences over the particular issue of the bill's provisions on the representative status of unions (FR9909104F). However, at local level, certain branches of these confederations did in fact join the CGT demonstrations.

Organisers put the turn-out at CGT's regional demonstration in Paris, which was also officially joined by some independent union organisations - FSU and the "group of 10" (including SUD) - and some associations of unemployed people at 25,000, while the police put the figure at 7,000. The Le Monde daily newspaper reported that, although provincial demonstrations were on a smaller scale, a total of several tens of thousands had taken part.

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