Fraternite, egalite, flexibilite

Speaking in Nice last week, the former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur did something that no French politician with even one eye on power would be advised to do. He called in direct and unapologetic terms for greater flexibility in employment policy.

He said there should be simpler labour legislation, more and longer temporary contracts and a reduction in the sick-pay and other social obligations on small companies. He even suggested pilot projects in selected regions. It was a choice, he said, between "reform or decline".

Even four weeks ago, such sentiments were taboo. Then, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, had only to hint that he might be considering a softening of employment protection legislation to prompt headlines like "Juppe's charter for sacking" and an immediate denial from his office that there was "any plan to make sacking easier".

In the weeks that have followed, however, flexibility has become a buzzword heard not just from predictable quarters such as the "Thatcherite" right of Alain Madelin, but increasingly from officials and even the occasional minister. Like it or not - and the French public do not like it at all - "flexibility" is insinuating itself on to the political agenda.

The government may have capitulated to the lorry drivers and it may have performed a spectacularly retrogressive U-turn on the privatisation of the Thomson group, but it is talking more and more about job "flexibility" as a way of reducing the 12.6 per cent unemployment rate. It is as though the government is trying, by constant low-key bombardment with the word, to soften up public opinion.

"Flexibility" was used repeatedly in a television discussion programme this week by Mr Balladur's former spokesman and budget minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is tipped to regain a ministry in the next cabinet reshuffle. Why not extend the possibility of temporary contracts beyond the present 18 months? he asked. At present such a contract has either to be made permanent or terminated after that time.

The left-leaning trade unions have taken a very dim view of the intrusion of "flexibility" into ministerial pronouncements. The Socialist Party has also voiced objections to any modification to labour laws "towards greater flexibility in dismissals". Part of the old-style Gaullist right also dislikes the new vocabulary and what they see as the American and British-style hiring and firing mentality that goes with it. In a clear dig at "reformers" like Mr Juppe, the former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua told Gaullists last weekend that he was "not ready to exchange the slogan of the French Republic - liberte, egalite, fraternite - for something supposedly more modern like stabilite, competitivite . . . and flexibilite.