Comment: France needs its ‘Thatcher moment’

Should Hollande be looking towards the Iron Lady for inspiration?

Image: White House Press Office

Image: White House Press Office

Bread. What could symbolise France more than the nation’s pride and joy, le baguette? However, bread represents a real problem in the French economy, a problem of overregulation and restrictive labour laws. In France, a local edict means that a bakery must close one day a week. Mr. Cazenave, a baker, opened his shop for seven days a week. He was taken to court, after the Bakers’ Union found out and his bakery was fined and force to close on Sundays by court order. Mr Cazenave said this cost him €250,000 and he’d have to lay-off staff.

The case of Mr Cazenave and his baguettes is sadly indicative of the problems in the French economy. Growth is sluggish, the labour market is restrictive and its trade unions are very powerful. This latest industrial action is over reform of employment law. The response: massive industrial action. For years, France’s politcial elite have failed to tackle the problem of union power. Sometimes they win but most of the time radical trade unionism prevails. Hollande is the latest, and probably won’t be the last, given that the majority of his reform plan has already been abandoned.

But what to do about France’s unions? The French may have a model to follow. 1970s Britain saw power cuts, fuel shortages and mass strike action. Militant unions conducted secondary picketing, wildcat strikes – where workers down tools immediately – and closed shop practices meaning that Britain’s heavily unionised workforce could paralyse the country, as both the Tories and Labour learnt in ‘74 and ‘79.

However in 1979, something changed. Margaret Thatcher was elected and decided to take on the unions. Before her: Barbara Castle, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan all tried and failed to reform industrial relations. Thatcher, however, had a public angry over the ‘winter of discontent’ and a conviction that change had to happen.

At the Conservative Party conference in 1980, Thatcher was defiant. The media had been calling for a u-turn for weeks but she drily replied with a smile: “U-turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning.” Instead of retreating like her predecessors had, she faced down militant trade unionism with the tenacity of a pitbull in a pearl necklace.

Over the next decade, union power was curtailed. Whether you agree with her methods or not, Britain today experiences little industrial action. Stikes do occur, as the Junior Doctors have proved, but the worst excesses of union power are gone. Some would say Thatcher went too far, but it seems that the awful-tasting medicine did work.

But what does my meandering history lesson have to do with France today? Ultimately, the lesson for France is that reform is needed no matter how difficult. Whether or not you agree with Thatcher, what is clear after nearly a decade of failure, is that her desire for labour reform was carried out. France is about to host the Euro 2016 but with its transport system being held hostage by the unions, something has to be done. Whether it is staying the course with the current legislation or trying to strengthen the reforms, the worst possible outcome is if France’s political class gives up.

Now, of course, Monsieur Hollande is no Thatcher; ideologically Hollande is socialist and Thatcher is Margaret Thatcher. However, France may need to have its ‘Thatcher moment’ to tackle union power. Given that militant unions in France are resisting even moderate reform, like in Britain, something will have to give if France is to tackle its problem with militant trade unionism.

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