PARIS, Jan 10 (Reuters) - French employers offered some concessions a
s a fresh round of talks to overhaul labour rules began on Thursday and could discuss union demands to raise welfare charges on short-term contracts, union officials said.
President Francois Hollande has called on business leaders and unions to strike a 'historic deal' to overhaul France's labour market to help firms adjust their wage burden in a downturn and give workers more job security.
His eight-month-old Socialist government, battling stalled growth and rampant unemployment, is pressing the parties to conclude a deal by Jan. 15 as talks restarted on Thursday after an end-of-year break.
The previous round broke up without an accord and both sides accusing the other of making unacceptable demands.
Hollande will introduce draft new labour legislation in the first quarter of 2013 regardless of whether a deal is struck.
He told reporters during a trip to southwest France on Thursday that he was confident the unions would seize the opportunity to strike a deal.
But without support from unions and employers, any law could face street protests and unions could push left-wing lawmakers to water it down.
'Tonight, we can reach a deal that puts France on par with the highest international standards in terms of flexi-security,' Laurence Parisot, head of the Medef employers union, said on Europe 1 radio. 'Anything less, there will be no deal.'
Flexi-security refers to a cooperative approach to labour relations widely used in northern Europe in which employees accept a degree of flexibility in working arrangements in return for employer commitments on job security.
France wants to emulate that to address high unemployment and to eradicate the split in its jobs market between inflexible permanent contracts and short-term contracts increasingly used by employers but which offer workers little or no job security.
Jobless claims are at a 15-year high with an unemployment rate above 10 percent.
Parisot said the Medef and its negotiating partner, the CGPME small- and medium-sized business group, would consider giving unions a voice and votes on company boards, and favoured making complementary health benefits automatic for workers.
Parisot repeated her employers' union's refusal to impose higher welfare charges on short-term contracts. But a negotiator for the moderate CFDT union, France's largest by membership, said Medef was now willing to discuss them.
'They (Medef) said they had understood that the issue of short-term contracts was unavoidable and that we would be discussing them today,' said Patrick Pierron, adding that use of contracts of less than a month had exploded in the past year.
But, he added: 'I think it's optimistic to think that it (the talks) will be over this evening.'
Unions say they could accept in-house deals allowing firms to temporarily cut work hours during downturns, similar to arrangements in Germany.
But even the moderate CFDT and CFTC unions remain opposed to the creation of new long-term job contracts that incorporate periods of lower pay and shorter working hours.
Bernard Thibault, head of the hardline CGT union, said his group would not sign any deal in favour of de-regulation.
'What I can tell you is there is no way the CGT will approve the spirit of proposals from management's camp,' he said.
(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur, Yann Le Guernigou and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Susan Fenton) Keywords: FRANCE LABOUR/
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