The media suggests French labor reform is unpopular, but doesn’t explain what it is.
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The media suggests French labor reform is unpopular, but doesn’t explain what it is.

September 13, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Demonstrators in French cities protest Macron’s labor reform

On Tuesday, demonstrators in France protested President Emmanuel Macron’s planned changes to the country’s labor code, or Code du Travail. Macron said the change was to help address the country’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate and incentivize companies to hire.

The protests were organized by the General Confederation of Labor Union (CGT), which is one of the largest unions. CGT called for rail workers, civil servants and students to protest in 180 demonstrations and 4,000 strikes across France. The union said an estimated 400,000 people marched in the country and more than 60,000 in Paris. The interior ministry said about 223,000 protesters marched nationwide, and police estimated 24,000 in the capital.

Details of the reform

Under the changes, employers will have fewer restrictions on hiring and firing; for example, they will have the ability to terminate contracts “by mutual consent at collective level.” SMEs, or small and medium businesses with fewer than 250 employees, and “micro-businesses,” such as home businesses, will be able to negotiate pay and working conditions with employees or employee representatives without union involvement or adherence to current industry-wide agreements. The changes set a minimum and a limit for “unfair” dismissal fines that employers pay, raises the legal severance pay for employees by 25 percent, and limits the amount of time employees have to appeal layoffs. The measures do not reference changes to the 35-hour workweek that is currently in place. (See the Context section below for more details.)

The French government announced the measures last month. It is scheduled to adopt and implement them by decree, or Ordinance, on Sept. 22. On Aug 2, the parliament passed a bill to allow the government to issue such an Ordinance. According to the French constitution, Ordinances require ratification by parliament to become permanent. Macron’s political party has a majority in parliament.  

Macron’s comments

On Friday, Macron, who took office in May, said, “I am fully determined and I won’t cede any ground, not to slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners.” He later said he was referring to “all of those who for the past 15 years have said we mustn’t move in France and in Europe.” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said “The president should listen to the people, understand them, rather than cause divisions.”

Scheduled protests

French unions CFDT and Force Ouvrière did not join the protest. Political party “France Unbowed” is planning a protest for Sept. 23. The CGT is planning more strikes and demonstrations on Sept. 21.

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage suggests the labor reform is widely unpopular and Macron’s approval is falling significantly.
  • There’s also missing information about what the changes actually are.
  • Put these together and what do we get? A negative impression about something that isn’t explained. This doesn’t foster critical thinking.  

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Slump

    The French president is facing slumping polls amid public skepticism of his policies, but he has notched some victories. (The Wall Street Journal)

    The president — whose personal ratings have slumped sharply since he came into office — was in the Caribbean on Tuesday visiting French islands hit by hurricane Irma last week. (AFP)

  • Missteps

    The French leader has made a series of missteps that have hurt his approval ratings. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Shake up

    Macron has vowed to press ahead with the reforms but he sparked a backlash last week by describing opponents of the shake-up as “slackers” and cynics, in comments blasted as “scandalous” by CGT chief Philippe Martinez. (AFP)

    French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday faced his first street protests as a far-left union led strikes and demonstrations against his plans to shake up the labor code. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Unwieldy

    Macron is determined to bring down France’s unemployment rate — at 9.5 percent, roughly twice that of Britain or Germany — and sees simplifying the unwieldy labour code as key to achieving this. (AFP)

  • Angered

    Compensation for unfair dismissal would also be capped, a move that has particularly angered unions, along with steps to make it easier for foreign-based companies to lay off staff in struggling French operations. (AFP)

    But the demonstrations also gave a chance for those angry at the government to express frustrations about other issues, including budget cuts, plans to reform the pension system, and Mr. Macron’s own style of governing.  (The New York Times)

    Existing anger against Mr. Macron was amplified last week when he said, in a speech in Greece, that those who opposed the changes for France were “slackers” or “cynics.” (The New York Times)

  • Disappointment

    Recent polls show that only around 40 percent of French voters are satisfied with Macron’s performance, with analysts putting the disappointment down to a combination of gaffes and poor communication. (AFP)

  • Cherished

    French workers have long cherished the rights enshrined in the labour code, but companies complain it has deterred investment and job creation and stymied economic growth. (Reuters)

    CHERISHED RIGHTS (Reuters, sub-header)

  • Fire-brand

    “We will make Macron back down,” far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has become Macron’s most vocal opponent in parliament, said on the sidelines of a protest in Marseille. (Reuters)

    The CGT plans to follow Tuesday’s actions with another protest day on September 21, with another two days later called by far-left firebrand Melenchon. (AFP)

  • Take Aim

    French Protests Take Aim at Macron’s Labor Reforms (The Wall Street Journal)

How did the media coverage we analyzed interpret France’s protests? Macron’s reform is widely unpopular and his approval is falling significantly, but he’ll be stubborn and press ahead anyway. There are two main issues with this interpretation: (1) it’s biased and doesn’t give a comprehensive understanding of how French citizens view the changes and (2) there’s missing data about what the plan actually is, making it difficult for readers to evaluate the changes. Let’s break it down:

(1) Bias: There are protests and some people don’t support the plan, but others do and some of the labor unions are not protesting. The slanted coverage focuses only or mostly on the disapproval. Outlets emphasize that Macron’s “personal ratings have slumped sharply” (AFP), and they focus on comments by dissenters. One calls the reform “a considerable retreat for worker rights and a generalized destabilization of labor” (cited by The Wall Street Journal).

More balanced coverage would take a comprehensive look at how the French public views the policies. For instance, Reuters (which was 48 percent balanced, according to our ratings) also includes information about unions that aren’t striking, and says the number of people protesting labor reform has dropped from 1.2 million last year to 400,000 this year. It also cites an opinion poll showing 60 percent of people oppose Macron’s plans, but that a majority of people favor most of the individual measures. While this may not provide a full picture, it does let us know that the changes aren’t universally despised.

In contrast, The New York Times (which had a balance rating of only 18 percent) doesn’t cite polls or refer to people who favor the reforms. It only mentions that “more moderate unions” that were “not entirely happy with the changes” had “not called on their members to protest,” and were open to negotiations with the government.

(2) Missing data: The outlets include very little about what the changes to the labor code will actually be, and how they differ from the current system. Instead, they include vague descriptions that say the plan will “overhaul,” “shake up” and “weaken” current laws, and that it will “[loosen] the rules that govern how businesses hire and fire staff” (AFP).

The descriptions that are included could lead to more questions than answers. Consider The Times’ only description of the planned change:

“The changes to the labor code would loosen regulations for small companies, make it easier to hire and fire employees, and enable businesses to negotiate certain workplace issues at the company level rather than having to abide by industrywide agreements.”

This reporting might raise questions such as:

  • How small is a “small company”? To which companies does the reform apply?
  • How will regulations be “loosened” and how will it be “easier” to hire and fire people? Is there some sort of approval process?
  • Do businesses have any negotiation powers already? Are there still some items they can’t negotiate (like a minimum wage, time off, or other items)?
  • What are the “industry-wide agreements” and who determines them? Do the labor unions do this across a whole industry?

You won’t find answers to these questions in The Times’ coverage, but you will find details about the reform in our Raw Data and Context sections.

To sum it up, the focus on the protests and Macron’s approval ratings may bias readers against the planned reform. Additionally, there’s missing information about what the changes actually are. Put these together and what do you get? A negative impression about something the outlets don’t actually explain. This doesn’t foster critical thinking.  

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 58% Spun

  • 66% Spun

  • 69% Spun

  • 77% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Reuters

“The turnout will serve as a yardstick for unions’ ability to mobilise, as deep splits have emerged in the labour movement between those determined to fight the reforms and those prepared to compromise.”

The CGT called for protests. Other main unions did not. The Force Ouvriere (FO) union and the CFDT said they were willing to negotiate with the government.

AFP

“Macron is hoping to avoid a re-run of labour protests that rocked France for months last year, repeatedly descending into violence, under his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande.”

There were labor protests last year while Hollande was president.

The New York Times

“The latest rallies are a test of Mr. Macron’s resolve to revamp the French economy and of his opponents’ ability to mobilize against him.”

There were protests.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

France’s biggest trade union is the CGT. (AFP)


AFP doesn’t define what it means by biggest. There are two ways to determine the size and support for France’s unions: their membership and the number of votes they get in elections for employee representatives. According to the most recent data we found, the CFDT union is France’s largest in terms of membership, and the CGT typically receives more votes in elections for worker representation.

In 2013, when voting for representation, the CGT led with 26.8 percent of the votes, followed by the CFDT with 26.0 percent. Regarding membership numbers, the CFDT claimed to have 868,601 in November 2012; the CGT told its congress in March 2013, using 2011 data, that it had 682,695 paying members.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Slants the information to the protesters’ prospective.

This headline doesn’t account for the government’s perspective. A more balanced headline might include both points of view, or just state what happened in a data-based way.

Dramatizes and exaggerates.

The CGT union and interior ministry provide information on the number of strikes and estimated number of people marching. That’s more measurable than saying protests “grip” cities.

Speculative and possibly confusing, if you haven’t followed the story.

Macron previously said he won’t “cede” to “slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners.” But the headline doesn’t attribute the comment to Macron, so it’s out of context. It’s also pure speculation that “slackers” may become a “rallying cry.”

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Macron’s labor reforms are “contentious” and unpopular, leading to protests from trade unionists.
  • The nationwide protests are a “key test” of Macron’s presidency. (AFP)
  • Neither Macron nor the unions are going to back down, so the issue of labor reform will probably lead to conflict, and maybe even violence.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Some unions are protesting and striking, but there’s also support for Macron’s plans. Some businesses support them, and several of the major unions have not called for protests. It’s only part of the story to focus on the unpopularity among some groups. Also, Reuters was the only outlet to report a poll (it didn’t specify who conducted it) showing that most individual measures of the reform received “majority support” from voters.
  • The protests are focused on the reforms, and they might not reflect upon his ability to lead or accomplish other parts of his platform. The president’s website lists a number of other issues he is also working on: Hurricane Irma assistance, prohibiting exploitation of hydrocarbons, and France’s response to North Korea, to name a few. Saying this one issue is a “key test” could downplay everything else on the president’s agenda.
  • Just because Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, chose to “water down” his labor reforms in the face of protests, and that previous protests on labor reform have become violent, doesn’t mean things will end up the same for Macron. What’s more, disagreement isn’t necessarily a problem; conflict can lead to negotiation and compromise. History doesn’t always repeat itself.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

The stated aim of Macron’s reform is to provide companies and employees “with greater equality, freedom and security through social and economic dialogue.”

According to Macron’s administration, even though 55 percent of the country’s jobs are in small- and medium-sized businesses (those with fewer than 250 employees and less than €50 million in annual turnover), current labor rules favor large industrial enterprises. The government suggests that employment negotiations under current standards may not represent the needs of employees and employers in smaller companies.

The government claims that employee protections against certain types of dismissals may also hinder company recruitment by being a source of “uncertainty” for employers.

What’s in Macron’s labor reform?

  • Allows “micro-businesses” and SMEs to negotiate directly with employees or an “elected staff representative.”
  • Establishes a set scale for damages in potential disputes, including caps and minimums.
    • Reasoning: provides “security and visibility.”
  • Changes dismissal rules; a standard form detailing the rights and duties of each party will be created to avoid procedural errors during a dismissal.
    • Reasoning: so that “procedural improprieties no longer override substance.”
  • Allows changes to working hours, pay and mobility to be decided via a simple majority.
    • Reasoning: will help companies “swiftly” adapt to market trends.
  • For businesses with over 50 employees, merge three information and consultation bodies into one: the social and economic council (CSE).
  • Raise the legal severance pay by 25 percent.
  • Improve access to vocational training and skills assessment.
    • Reasoning: to combine trade union involvement with professional development.

More proposed changes can be found here.

What do the unions say?

Some unions claim the new rules may limit employee negotiating powers and rights, and that the administration’s focus on labor laws as an economic hindrance are misplaced.

Citing a survey by the French national statistics bureau that asked employers about hiring barriers, the CGT points to economic uncertainty as the primary cause of employers’ reluctance to increase hiring, rather than the country’s labor laws. Other factors cited by the survey include a lack of competent employees, cost-related barriers and regulations.

The CGT also claims the new rules will limit employees’ ability to negotiate contracts, though it doesn’t specifically state which of the new rules it is referring to.

The CFDT has publicly opposed capping damages for “unfair” dismissals and a proposed one-year limit on contract disputes.

(Note, CGT and CFDT information was interpreted by using Google Translate.)