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Latest French labour protests fail to draw large crowds

© Philippe Wojazer/POOL/AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron signs documents on a new labour bill in his office at the Élysée Palace in Paris on September 22.


Latest update : 2017-10-19

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of France on Thursday to denounce President Emmanuel Macron's planned labour reforms, but low turnouts suggested the resistance is running out of steam.

Numbers have steadily dwindled from a peak of around a quarter of a million who protested nationwide on September 12, the first major demonstration against Macron's reform agenda seen as pro-business.

"I hope people will wake up," said Johann Le Saux, a 38-year-old railway worker and activist of France's largest union, the CGT, which called the protest along with the smaller Solidaires union.

"It's not over, we're not giving up at all," Le Saux told AFP in the western city of Rennes.

The CGT estimated the turnout in Paris at around 25,000, down sharply from the 60,000 they claimed on September 12. Police estimated Thursday's crowd at 5,500.

Explainer: French labour law reforms

"Workers must be heard at work and in the street," an activist of the far-left Lutte Ouvriere (Workers Struggle) party shouted into a megaphone as supporters echoed him at the Paris march.

Party activist Lucien Noaile, a railway worker with nearly two decades of service, told AFP: "It's true the numbers aren't huge. What counts is that those who struggle stay determined in their heads... We're creating a movement."

Unions 'inaudible'

CGT leader Philippe Martinez, leading protests in Marseille to demand the repeal of major changes to labour laws which took effect last month, insisted "we are determined to see this through."

Martinez has been one of the most vocal critics of Macron since his election in May, and the CGT has spearheaded what has so far been a largely ineffective round of strikes and demonstrations to demand that the government change tack.

As with two protest days in September, the unions failed to mount a united front, with the more moderate CFDT and FO preferring talks over demonstrations.

The CGT and Solidaires are hoping a meeting of all the unions next Tuesday will bring FO and others back into the streets.

Commenting on the splintering of the union movement, analyst Jean-Marie Pernot told the daily Le Monde that the unions have become "inaudible to the workers, not to mention the government."

A CGT activist at the Paris march who gave her name only as Chanez said the union was "pretty disappointed" not to have made common cause with FO.

Macron's popularity plummets

Pensioner Henriette Bascoulergue, 75, said she was protesting for her four grandchildren, lambasting Macron as "contemptuous and contemptible".

She carried a sign referring to herself as a "slacker'" -- a references to a recent remark by the president directed at critics of his labour reforms.

Bascoulergue has not lost hope of a resurgence of the protest movement. "It'll come!" she said.

CGT activist Chanez, who works for a major clothing firm, was more fatalistic: "The street is all we have left."

Macron, who fast-tracked the labour reforms using executive orders to avoid lengthy parliamentary debate, has staked his presidency on overhauling France's sluggish economy.

The president insists he has a mandate for change after handily winning election in May and seeing his centrist LREM party sweep June parliamentary polls.

But his popularity has plummeted, with only 34 percent of respondents in an Ipsos Game Changers survey out Wednesday saying they had a favourable view of the former investment banker.

The government says the reforms are necessary to rein in unemployment, currently stuck at around 9.6 percent -- about twice that of Britain or Germany.

It has already launched the next stage of the "transformation" of the French social model promised by Macron, who proposes major changes to France's generous unemployment benefits system.

A draft bill is set for completion in April.


Date created : 2017-10-19


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