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.
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.
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.