Macron faces first major street protests of his presidency
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Emmanuel Macron faces the first major protests of his presidency on Tuesday as one of the country’s biggest trade unions prepares to lead demonstrations against his planned labour reforms. More than 180 protests are planned nationwide.
The 36 reform measures across five separate decrees aim to ensure greater flexibility in negotiating working conditions; allow businesses with fewer than 20 employees to negotiate directly with staff and bypass union agreements; enable employers to hire and fire with greater ease; and limit redundancy payouts for unfair dismissals.
Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, the architects of the reforms, see them as a necessary modernisation of a French society burdened by a labour code that is more than 3,500 pages long. Yet the reforms' detractors view them as a scandalous example of presidential overreach – criticism that intensified in recent days after a speech Macron gave in Athens, where he said he would not "yield anything – neither to the lazy, the cynics nor the extremists”.
Many on the left expressed outrage at his comments, saying the president was implying workers who opposed his reforms were lazy.
The secretary general of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, branded Macron’s remarks as “scandalous”. Former left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon slammed them as a “torrent of abuse against the French people” while left-leaning publications like French daily Libération have also widely criticised the president for his comments.
The president later clarified his remarks by saying he was referring to his presidential predecessors – those who failed to address French labour reform in the past.
But clearer communication will be necessary for Macron to navigate the tricky waters that lie ahead, especially following a sharp drop in popularity in recent weeks.
A star on the wane?
Macron has been clear about his reformist intentions from the start of his election campaign. Given his emphatic victory, such discontent so early in his presidency may come as a surprise.However, a poll by Libération after the first round of the presidential election showed that only 58 percent of those who voted for Macron did so out of a sense of conviction: 20 percentage points less than for every other candidate. Many voted for him just to prevent a victory for his second-round opponent, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
>> Read more: A round-up of France's controversial labour law reforms
But some 25 percent of voters rejected both Macron and Le Pen, with 2017's second round seeing the highest abstention rate in any presidential election since 1969. The vote was famously derided as a choice between the “plague and cholera” by those who packed the streets of Paris for the May 1 Labour Day demonstrations.
Abstention has long been a problem in France, especially during the legislative elections which, with its huge list of candidates and falling just after the presidential election, often fails to capture the electorate’s imagination.
Macron still won a clear victory but the voices that rang through the streets in protest or scribbled “Ni Le Pen Ni Macron” (neither Le Pen nor Macron) on metro walls have not gone away; in fact, they may be gaining in number. Macron’s popularity plummeted over the summer, with polls estimating the young president’s rating after his first 100 days to be even lower than those seen by his wildly unpopular predecessor, François Hollande. Instead of graffiti, it is now major French publications openly questioning the president. Even before the “lazy” scandal last week, Libération ran with the headline, “Macron: A president for the rich?”
The rise of Macron, a former Rothschild banker, has long been built on these tensions. It was only a year ago that he famously snapped at a demonstrator in the street: “The best way to afford a suit is to get a job.” But as Macron’s plans for reform continue he will need to convince his detractors that he is a president for all, and that his reforms will be to the benefit of workers – even those who gather to oppose him in the streets on Tuesday.