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French PM locks horns with unions in key reform summit

France's Prime Minister came out fighting against several influential unions that boycotted a major job creation summit, slamming their attitude as unhelpful in a country in need of reform.

PARIS: France's Prime Minister came out fighting on Tuesday against several influential unions that boycotted a major job creation summit, slamming their attitude as unhelpful in a country in need of reform.

The pugnacious Manuel Valls has been accused of pandering to big business for deferring an early retirement plan for those in physically tough jobs following a threat by Medef, the main employers union.

As a result, four unions - which only represent a small portion of France's workers but have huge influence - boycotted a summit on Tuesday where new employment proposals were discussed.

"It's their right, but I regret this attitude. It does not help get things done," Valls said in the closing speech of the two-day summit in Paris.

"I am not minimising this gesture," he said, but warned unions that a "prolonged refusal to engage in dialogue would be an incomprehensible position."

The Prime Minister has also attracted the ire of lawmakers in the ruling Socialist Party who accuse him of veering too much to the right. Some have abstained on key government bills in parliament.

"The French have had enough of the postures of those who abstain at in National Assembly (the lower house) or those who don't come to meetings," he said in an interview on TF1 television.

"They want us to roll up our sleeves for this country. Do we move or do we not move? Do we reform or do we not reform?"

The summit came against a backdrop of record unemployment in the Eurozone’s second-largest economy, where 3.38 million people are out of work.

President Francois Hollande had billed the conference as an opportunity to fine tune a plan under which French companies would see their tax burden reduced in return for them agreeing to start hiring.

The plan has been interpreted in some quarters as a sign the Socialist government recognises a need for economic reform and is shifting to more business friendly policies.

But it has proved controversial with those on the left who see big business being handed tax breaks funded by cuts in public spending in areas such as health and social benefits, with no obligation to do anything in return.

The so-called Responsibility Pact, which offers businesses 40 billion euros (US$54 billion) worth of cuts to taxes and social benefit charges in exchange for a pledge to create some 500,000 jobs by 2017, is still very vague.

It is not clear how the government will ensure that companies do not simply pocket the tax breaks - an issue that some unions are unhappy about.Unions were also enraged by Valls's decision last week to defer the early retirement scheme after Medef complained it was too costly and threatened to boycott the labour summit.

They accused Valls of having contempt for workers and not consulting them before making key decisions.

Jean-Claude Mailly, the head of FO - the leading civil service union - said Monday there was a "fly in the ointment" in the dialogue and France's influential CGT union said Medef had "obtained what it wanted even before the start of the conference".

On Tuesday, the CGT said the summit had been "very far from the real concerns of the labour world".

But other labour organisations attended the summit they argued was crucial at a time of record unemployment.

Valls pledged in his speech to fight against youth unemployment, particularly through training schemes, announcing that an extra 200 million euros (US$272 million) would be put aside to promote apprenticeships.

Laurent Berger, the head of the reformist CFDT union, concluded that the summit had been successful despite the boycott of other labour organisations.

"Those who think that social dialogue is 'our proposals, and only our proposals' have not understood anything about social dialogue," he said.

"Those who were present had the opportunity to put forward their proposals."

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