Contrat Premiere Embauche (French Labour Law)

Students confront Police at the Sorbonne

Employment law in France is, to an outside observer used to the Anglo-saxon system, all about employee rights. Trade Unions are strong and their socialist leanings mean that acquired employee rights cannot be taken lightly. The desire of the current right-wing government is to make employment law more flexible for employers, allowing them to have recruitment policies which would make their business more profitable at the expense of employee job security. Should it all be about capitalist aims, or rights to employment with job protection and social rights?

The latest change to French law – to bring in a “contrat première embauche” – will allow employers to have newly recruited young employees sign a contract which can be terminated without reason in the first two years. Whilst this may in reality seem like a step backwards (at least to the French), bear in mind that the current option is often an unpaid internship or a multitude of fixed short term contracts before people actually get a permanent contract. This is due to the fact that sacking someone after a few months of a permanent contract agreement have passed is difficult, unless solid proof of their continual poor performance can be provided.

Current French youth unemployment is at 22.8%, so I find it a bit rich when the argument given by students currently striking and occupying their universities, which led to and intervention by the riot police, is that the new law leads them into further precarity. A move made to encourage right-wing capitalist employers to take on young inexperienced staff is surely to be encouraged, whatever your political leaning. If it causes unemployment to rise, then it should be removed. Until then, why not test it? Because let’s face it, whether you have socialist principles or not, the employers that aren’t taking on new staff on a permanent basis are more likely to be right wing.

Image credit: Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP


  1. Good word, precarity! Only emerged in France (precarite – can’t do the accents on this machine) around 2000 with the labour squabbles and students’ views. Conveys not general precariousness but precariousness linked to social condition. Hope all well with you guys and that Nathan does not start to crawl before I get to see him again. Grandma White

  2. Simon

    12/3/2006 at 10:33 am


    I chose precarity as a translation back to English of the French word précarité which is being used a lot at the moment. Didn’t realise it’s not a recognised English word. Precariousness is indeed the only recognised noun form of the adjective precarious.

    I believe that précarité is a French word that dates back some way. The principle synonyms for it would be uncertainty and instability. In my 1997 Petit Larousse I have it as

    1. that which is precarious.
    2. situation of a person who has no stable employment, housing, or income.

    Indeed, précaire itself has a second definition (aside from precarious) as “that which exists by a right which could be revoked”. Given that there are no decent sources of French dictionary references online bar the Wikipedia and Wiktionary, I’d love to see if your old Larousse has a reference to it.


  3. I actually looked up précarité when I translated the article… I didn’t think it was an English word, but I’ve been here too long, and sometimes get a bit confused over French vs English versions of a word. The real translation is precariousness.

  4. helen white

    13/3/2006 at 10:54 am

    Will check that old Larousse – it was actually my great-grandmother’s – she was born in 1870 something!

  5. Simon

    13/3/2006 at 9:26 pm


    Great to see you making your comment début here!

    I “trackbacked” your article but it seems there is no link from here automatically generated, so here is the article on CPE on Rue Rude.

    I think a better translation of “précarité” would be “insecurity”, “instability” or “uncertainty” because precariousness makes me think of someone wobbling on a high wall trying not to look down. Maybe that’s just me!


  6. “Precarite” – nope, never heard it before, but I think I’ll try to shoehorn it into conversation. Newly-made-up, or mis(or-not-at-all)translated words, there has to be a happy place for them at certain moments…
    That new French contract law does look, at least initially, rather odd and disorienting, though of course I’m clueless as to the background working circumstances over there. Just seems intriguing as to why, or at least how long in the planning, this amendment was being made. How soon, and widely, do you think it will actually affect many?

  7. Simon

    14/3/2006 at 9:53 am


    It is rather odd, a spinoff of the complicated French labour laws that already exist. Basically this new contract is, in theory, supposed to help you if you’re under 26 and unemployed you have a hard time finding a permanent contract. Employers can take more risks on a borderline candidate knowing that they aren’t locked in to a permanent contract.

    Let’s not forget that if you’ve worked somewhere a few months, the onus is on the employer to prove unsuitability for a job on serious grounds. In the UK or US, I have seen people get sacked on fairly subjective grounds. That cannot happen in France.

    My take, as explained in the post, is that with youth unemployment as high as it is, perhaps this kind of initiative could work. If it doesn’t, then get rid of it.


  8. Simon,

    I wrote an article on this because it translates to Italy and what I see can be future difficulties in the US.

    I was somewhat amazed that the PM tried to do this as a law instead of trying a referendum. This same type of proposal was attempted in Italy 3 years ago. By popular vote was defeated rather significantly. It seems that the PM might have learned something from the Italian experience.

    Changes need to be made in the labor laws, but I do not believe this is the best road to follow. I could easily see the proposal eliminated and perhaps a “Crisi di Governo” over this proposal.

  9. Simon

    19/3/2006 at 5:42 pm

    Hi David,

    There is a brewing crisis indeed. Students are already causing big problems, and louts have jumped in with their cause as an excuse to attack the police and public buildings.

    It’s particularly difficult to make changes to labour laws which will make workers more vulnerable. Acquired rights should not be given up. However, loopholes in temporary contract law and interim status mean that with or without the CPE the young unemployed will be “disposable” and uncertain about their future until they have established themselves.

    International right wing pressure will cause socialist principles to face difficult challenges as the global economy becomes more and more capitalist. Ultimately, if you want to keep social rights and full employment, you have to stop buying cheap imported goods from extremely capitalist factories in emerging economies. Protesting against harsh economic reality just stops any plans the government may have from working.

    I’m not sure about referenda on this kind of subject. Parties should include clear proposals on labour law reform in their manifesto and get elected on that basis. The devil is in the details – many protesters are outraged over untruths and false interpretations of what labour laws actually cover in France.

    After all, The French did eliminate the main socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the last presidential elections, in favour of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s nationalist party. So there was no choice but to go for a massive move to the right by voting Chirac and his right wing cronies. Democracy has already spoken… we’re just seeing another re-run of the French penchant for protesting in the streets, albeit on a scale not seen since 1968. If only the left wing could reunite behind a common manifesto instead of all the infighting we’ve been seeing for years, then maybe they could pull a majority from the popular vote… perhaps Ségolène Royal will become the first woman socialist to head up the state?


  10. You may know that I am apolitical, in that I do not support either left or right policies or programs. I look at things on an individual basis and I think that this could be a serious problem for the future.

    The same loopholes exist in Italy and the referendum was attempted under Berlusconi.

    I would hope that the labour laws could be modified to get rid of the more egregious problems such as having to hire a certain number of disabled, registering in each province, costs to reduce labor in case of true corporate difficulty, and firing for just cause.

    I do believe you are correct in your analogy to 1968. I do not like many of the things that came out of 1968 but these things go in cycles, you exagerate to one side then to the other. Eventually, over time, you have a happy medium.

    This is the great thing about Europe, they have been around long enough to understand “balance”.


  11. Simon

    19/3/2006 at 8:13 pm


    It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out. Your article takes an interesting perspective. It seems that the US media view is that youth unemployment will increase based on the new CPE law?

    You are right about the balance and I hope it will swing back in the right direction.


  12. Actually what I am seeing from the media, an perhaps I expressed myself poorly, is that by eliminating the just cause clause employers will be more willing to hire thus reducing youth unemployment.

    My experience is just the opposite. Changing the law does not reduce “real unemployment” it merely gives the perception that the percentage is falling. It also has the unintended consequence of reducing wages and encourages employers to reduce labor in lean times instead of becoming more productive. When business picks up they then pay premiums for employees causing serious exagerations in the normal employment scene, that is what goes on here in the US.

    There are changes that need to be made in the labor laws, I think this particular one is of little positive consequence and most likely will cause the government to fall, as we say “political suicide”.