French employers, unions split over labour reform bid

PARIS, Jan 10 (Reuters) - French employers will consider some concessions in labour reform talks on Thursday but remain opposed to a key union demand to raise welfare charges on short-term contracts, their chief said as negotiations entered a final stretch.

President Francois Hollande has called on business leaders and worker groups to strike a "historic deal" to overhaul France's labour market, helping firms to adjust their wage burden in a downturn and giving workers more job security.

His Socialist government is pressing the parties to conclude a deal by Jan. 15 as talks restart. A previous round broke up without an accord, with both sides accusing each other of making unacceptable demands.

Hollande will introduce a draft law in the first quarter of 2013 regardless of whether a deal is struck. But without support from unions and employers, any law may face street protests and unions may 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 unflexible permanent contracts and short-term contracts increasingly used by employers but which offer workers little or no job security.

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.

Unions say they could accept in-house deals allowing firms to temporarily cut work-hours during downturns, similar to arrangements in Germany. They may also accept the creation of new long-term job contracts with less iron-clad terms.

However, union demands to impose higher welfare charges on short-term contracts remained a sticking point. Parisot said Medef was not prepared to extend talks beyond this week.

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 and Jean-Baptiste Vey; editing by Mark John)