PARIS: Over 220,000 protesters marched against President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship economic reforms on Tuesday in the first major demonstrations opposed to his pro-business agenda.
The day of strikes and rallies was seen as a key test for the young French leader as he stakes his presidency on overhauling the sluggish economy. Initial estimates indicated that turnout was low compared with other recent protests in France.
About 4,000 strikes and 180 protests were called by France’s biggest trade union, the CGT, with rail workers, students and civil servants urged to join the demonstrations against changes to the country’s rigid labor laws.
France’s interior ministry said 223,000 people joined marches nationwide, with 13 arrests made. The Communist-backed CGT, for its part, put the total at 400,000.
The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful despite isolated clashes between anarchists and police in Paris, where teargas was fired.
“It’s a first one and it looks like it’s a success,” the head of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, told reporters in Paris.
But disruption to rail networks, air traffic control and public services was limited.
“It doesn’t look like turnout is very high today,” political analyst Jerome Sainte-Marie from the polling group PollingVox told Agence France-Presse, adding that Macron had the upper hand because the reforms were part of his election manifesto.
Attendance was being scrutinized as a measure of the resistance to Macron’s economic agenda, which is intended to help bring down stubbornly high unemployment.
The business-friendly leader wants to make France more attractive for both local companies and foreign investors who have long complained about restrictive labor laws and the power of trade unions.
The changes will give companies more flexibility in negotiating terms and conditions with their employees while reducing the costs of firing workers.
But the 39-year-old president antagonized his opponents last week when he described critics of his government’s efforts as “slackers, cynics and extremists.”
Protesters seized on the remark Tuesday, some daubing the word on banners and placards while others shouted “Macron you’re screwed, the slackers are in the street.”
Retired economics researcher Evelyne Deurilla-Feer came dressed as a giant box of Kleenex, in protest at reforms she said would result in workers being tossed away like used tissues.
“The labor code is supposed to protect employees, and what has Macron created? A code that protects entrepreneurs and businesses. It’s a real scandal,” she told Agence France-Presse.
Deep splits in the trade union movement have made things easier for Macron.
While the CGT and its hardline allies are determined to obstruct the changes, other unions have signaled they are prepared to compromise and negotiate.
“We need to stop thinking that trade union action only makes sense when we demonstrate,” the head of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, told Franceinfo radio.
The CFDT, the largest union in the private sector, and the leader of the usually fiery Force Ouvriere (FO) union both declined to join the strike action.
A separate protest on Tuesday by fairground operators swelled the numbers on the streets and their trucks blocked roads in Paris and other cities.
Macron is hoping to avoid a re-run of mass demonstrations against labor reforms last year that saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets against his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande.
The new president—who has seen his approval ratings plummet since taking office in May— headed to the Caribbean on Tuesday to visit French islands hit by Hurricane Irma last week.
The CGT plans to follow Tuesday’s actions with a second protest day on September 21, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and his France Unbowed movement have called rallies two days later.
“The political rallies might be bigger than the union ones,” commented Sainte-Marie from PollingVox.
Macron has angered unions by using executive orders to fast-track the changes.
They are to take effect this month even before being ratified by parliament, where Macron’s Republic on the Move party has a large majority.
The new law will give small company bosses in particular more freedom to negotiate working conditions directly with their employees rather than being subject to industry-wide agreements.
Compensation for unfair dismissal will be capped, while it will become easier for foreign-based companies to lay off staff in struggling French operations. AFP