* Parisot seeks rule change to enable third term
* On Thursday Medef exec committee to decide whether to back
* Medef role crucial to Hollande's labour market reform
By Mark John
PARIS, March 25 From her office across the lawns
of the Champs de Mars from the Eiffel Tower, employers'
federation boss Laurence Parisot is fighting the rulebook to
stay on the frontline of France's battle for economic reform.
As head of Medef she wields more power than some cabinet
ministers and has led prickly negotiations with trade unions to
address what many, from independent economists to President
Francois Hollande, consider a major reason for France's loss of
industrial competitiveness - high unit labour costs and
inflexible work practices.
But in a move that has infuriated some at the top of the
French business world, the diminutive 53-year-old wants to tweak
Medef's statutes so she can run for an unprecedented third term.
Parisot faces a crucial first obstacle on Thursday when she
must persuade Medef's executive committee to allow her to stand,
but then she must also get a two-thirds majority at a general
assembly in late April to change the rules.
In response to accusations that she is engineering a
permanent takeover of the organisation, Parisot, who in January
persuaded three trade unions to back a revamp of France's rigid
labour rules, says she needs more time to complete her work.
"Everyone, even my rivals, say I have done a good job. So
how can I at the same time be accused of being a dictator?"
Parisot said at her monthly news conference last week.
"Mrs Merkel can stand as many times as she wants. In most
Western democracies there are no term limits," she added.
The comparison with the combative German chancellor is a
telling insight into Parisot's style over two terms since 2005
in one of the most politically charged roles outside government,
sometimes dubbed the "boss of the bosses".
A skilled speaker and frequent television guest, Parisot has
eclipsed challengers within the federation to become its single
voice to the outside world, with Medef insiders also testifying
to the tight grip she keeps on its internal policymaking.
The head of its ethics committee has already resigned in
protest at her call to scrap the two-term limit.
While the outcome of the leadership battle remains hard to
predict, at stake is whether Medef will back Parisot and her
method of seeking gradual consensus with unions, or go for a
candidate who might push for more radical reform.
Heiress to the 77-year-old Parisot furniture group, Parisot
skipped a life selling beds and desks to study law and political
science before taking over France's influential IFOP opinion and
corporate strategy group.
Her arrival at the head of Medef in 2005 marked a break in
style from predecessor Ernst-Antoine Seilliere, 21 years her
senior, whose "Baron" nickname reflected his stiffly patrician
"The sight of this young woman coming in really freshened up
the image of the employers' federation," one former senior Medef
official said of Parisot, with her modishly short haircut and
passion for street art.
"She set about her work with two preoccupations: to seduce
public opinion and seduce the political power of the day," said
the official, who would only talk on condition of anonymity.
She raised eyebrows in 2011 by co-authoring a book attacking
the extreme right of Marine Le Pen, something that may have won
her favour with the conservative government at the time but drew
criticism that she was straying from her proper role.
Barely concealing her preference for ex-president Nicolas
Sarkozy in last year's election, Parisot is a staunch critic of
the Socialist Hollande, attacking the tax hikes in his 2013
budget, which she says strangle investment and innovation.
Yet she has cooperated with Hollande, delivering a Jan. 11
agreement with unions that will form the basis of his planned
labour reform by trading off greater protection for short-term
contracts with more flexible hire-and-fire rules.
If the reform passes parliament in the weeks ahead, it will
be a modest step towards the kind of "flexi-security" model that
has allowed Denmark and others more wiggle room to adjust their
workforces to the ups and downs in the economy.
READY FOR BATTLE
Some argue, however, that it is simply too modest.
"It's okay. It is not a historic accord," Pierre Gattaz,
chief executive of electronics components group Radiall SA
and a declared challenger to Parisot, told Reuters.
"The problem is that our country has not yet accepted the
basic rules of globalisation," said Gattaz, whose book "Seven
Pillars of Growth" argues for deeper reforms to reverse the
decline in the French economy.
Campaigning in earnest will only start when it is known
whether Parisot can get the rules changed. For now Gattaz and
other potential candidates are appealing to Parisot to back down
from a move they argue could tear the organisation apart.
"There is no chance she can change the statutes," insists
Thibault Lanxade, head of payment services group Aqoba, arguing
that the federation's large construction, industrial and public
sector branches were among those opposed to the change.
"There is a huge risk that this is going to ruin the image
of the organisation. Laurence is a fighter, but this is one
fight too many," Lanxade, also one of the handful of likely
contenders, told Reuters.
Yet Parisot, whose hand was last week strengthened by an
opinion issued by Medef's statutes committee that a rule change
was technically possible, appears to relish the fight and has
challenged rivals to an open debate on policy.
"Obviously some people are scared of going head-to-head in
an election," she told reporters. "I am the one taking the risks
here, and yet I am not a bit afraid."