Europe |Developing

Demonstrators defy Macron’s labour law reforms

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George Engels

George Engels

"Understood. Thanks so much for your i..."
JS

Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"Good morning George, the last senten..."
George Engels

George Engels

"Hi Jean-Jacques, Thanks for your i..."
JS

Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"Hello George, your piece on the prop..."

We are covering this story because these protests represent President Macron’s first important domestic challenge, and are the latest development in France’s foremost decades-long socio-political issue.

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Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across France on September 12 to vent their anger at President Macron’s planned overhaul of the country’s labour laws.

France’s interior ministry claimed the turnout was 224,000 people. The hardline General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the country’s second largest union, said the number was “closer to 500,000 [demonstrators]”.

CGT secretary general Philippe Martinez labelled the protests a “success”  and said there was a “very strong mobilisation in the provinces. By midday we numbered over 100,000 [demonstrators]”.

“This illustrates the strong discontent” with Mr Macron’s proposed labour rules overhaul, he added.

The CGT claims 60,000 people attended the demonstrations in Paris, while the police says the turnout was 24,000 people.

Although dissatisfied by President Macron’s reforms, France’s other two largest unions – CFDT and Force Ouvrière (FO) – did not take part in the demonstrations.

Several local FO branches decided to join the fray regardless.

Although the atmosphere was largely festive, isolated violent confrontations took place between police and hooded protesters in Paris, Lyon and Nantes.

Security forces used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

French news media reports that one injured protester was taken to hospital, while several more were arrested.

The CGT has announced another day of industrial action for September 21, while La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called for demonstrations on September 23 to counter “[Macron’s] social coup d’état”.

President Macron was notably absent from country’s first social protests.

On September 12, he visited Saint Martin, where he pledged €50 million and an increase in security forces to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean island.

 

A new beginning? 

Mr Macron is not the first president to try to reform France’s 3,000-page Code du Travail.

Several of his predecessors – including his political mentor François Hollande – tried to reform aspects of the country’s labour laws, only to be defeated on the streets by massive union and student-led protests.

Trade union membership in France is among the lowest in Europe. Roughly eight percent of French employees – 1.8 million people – are union members. This number almost doubles for employees in the public sector.

Nevertheless, French unions have historically played an important role in the country’s politics. This is mainly due to their ability to mobilise their members for mass action against specific government policies.

For example, in 2006, the French government was forced to go back on its plans for a new employment contract for young workers due to mass protests organised by several unions.

But where others have failed, Mr Macron seems headed for certain success.

The young leader, 39, made liberalising France labour code a central plank of his election manifesto. He beat far-right runner-up Marine Le Pen in May 2017 by a landslide majority.

His government immediately started holding meetings this summer with unions and employers’ groups in a bid to reach an acceptable compromise.

In late August, Mr Macron’s government issued five decrees aimed at overhauling the Code du Travail.

The proposed reforms would give employers more flexibility to negotiate wages and terms directly with employees, and would curtail compensation paid to workers for unfair dismissal.

Mr Macron claims his proposed changes will tackle France’s mass unemployment rate – 9.5 percent total and double for young adults – and make the country more competitive on the global stage.

He hopes to reduce unemployment to 7 percent by 2022.

In early August, the French parliament, which is controlled by Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche, authorised the executive to rule by decree on the issue of labour reform by implementing article 49-3 of the French constitution. This procedure has been used by several French presidents to press on with sensitive issues.

George Engels is a multimedia journalist whose work has been published in The Sunday Times and The Camden New Journal, among other publications. He has a background in history and philosophy and a strong interest in transnational political and social affairs, particularly in cases where governments are failing their people. He’s @gengels92 on Twitter.


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George Engels is a staff journalist and producer at WikiTribune. He has a background in history and philosophy and a strong interest in international politics and security, and social affairs. His work has been published by The Sunday Times, The Camden New Journal, The West End Extra and the Islington Tribune.

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  1. Rewrite

    Understood. Thanks so much for your input.

  2. Hello George,

    your piece on the proposed reform of the French Labour Law is accurate and clear.
    2 remarks could add some context,

    – Labour unions: although overall membership is low in France (say compared with Germany), it is high in the public sector (postal services, education, public transport, etc), and much weaker elsewhere. Your readers may be interested to know why the unions still wield such power. One of the reasons is that during WW2, the Résistance had many participants from the French Communist Party, to which the CGT union was closely linked. In recognition of their role in the Résistance, but also to avoid disruptive industrial action, De Gaulle’s provisional government (1944-46), and subsequent governments, recognized unions as essential negotiating partners on labour issues. The fact that, this time, CFDT and FO are staying away from the strikes is a significant (though not the first) break from solidarity among unions.

    – Legislation by decree: this process was not invented by Macron, as article 49-3 of the Constitution has been used a number of times, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_49_of_the_French_Constitution#Commitment_of_responsibility_on_a_bill_.2849.3.29

    Thanks.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Jean-Jacques,

      Thanks for your input, I’ll definitely include your point about union membership in the private v public sector.

      I also read somewhere that these reforms would only directly affect the private sector, which is slightly ironic, given that most people protesting belong to the public sector. Is that something you would characterise as fair?

      Finally, regarding Macron’s rule by decree, did my writing give the (mistaken) impression that he is the first French president to rule in this manner?

      Thanks,
      George

      1. Good morning George,

        the last sentence in your article reads: ”In early August, the French parliament, which is controlled by Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche, made it possible for the executive to rule by decree on the issue of labour reform.”

        Readers might get the impression that Macron, though maybe not the first, is one of the rare Presidents to have used or to use art. 49-3. Might I suggest something like ”In early August, the French National Assembly (lower house), which is controlled by La République en Marche, the party founded by Mr. Macron, authorized the executive to implement article 49-3 of the Constitution, a procedure used by several French presidents on sensitive issues. Mr. Macron is poised to use this for the labour reform.”

        Regards,
        Jean-Jacques.

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