A tense standoff between France's prime minister and several leading unions stepped up a notch on Tuesday as Manuel Valls slammed their boycott of a key job-creation summit as unhelpful.
The pugnacious Valls has for days been in the firing line, accused of pandering to big business and not consulting labour organisations, and criticised 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 major unions on Tuesday boycotted a summit aimed at creating new jobs in struggling France in an unprecedented move that saw them shun talks where the nuts and bolts of 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, on the day that marked his 100 days in office.
"I am not minimising this gesture," he said, but warned unions that a "prolonged refusal to engage in dialogue would be an incomprehensible position."
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 new employees.
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 ($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 in its nascent stages and still very vague.
It is not clear how the government will ensure that companies do not simply pocket the tax breaks -- an issue that unions are unhappy about.
- 'Fly in the ointment' -
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.
French unions were 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.
Union officials accused Valls of having contempt for workers and not consulting them before making key decisions.
Jean-Claude Mailly, the head of FO -- the leading union of civil servants -- said Monday there was a "fly in the ointment" in the dialogue and the head of France's biggest union grouping -- the CGT -- said Medef had "obtained what it wanted even before the start of the conference".
They have dubbed the Responsibility Pact an "austerity pact" and accuse Valls of giving in to "blackmail" by big business.
But other labour organisations attended a summit they said was necessary 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 ($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."