French Protests Take Aim at Macron's Labor Reforms

By William Horobin Features Dow Jones Newswires

French President Emmanuel Macron faced his first street protests as a far-left union led strikes and demonstrations against his plans to shake up the labor code.

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The CGT union on Tuesday organized almost 200 rallies around the country against laws Mr. Macron plans to sign this month that would reduce financial risks for companies laying people off and make it easier to negotiate working conditions with employees. But, in a favorable early sign for Mr. Macron, the other major unions didn't participate in the demonstrations.

"It is a considerable retreat for worker rights and a generalized destabilization of labor," said Antoine Girard, an unemployed theater worker at a march in Paris.

Thousands of people set out from the city's landmark Bastille column, chanting and shouting. Police estimated that 24,000 people attended the protest in Paris.

The demonstrations are a test for Mr. Macron as he embarks on contentious changes to welfare, taxes and pensions. He has said the moves are necessary to address low growth and high unemployment after his predecessors backed away from overhauling worker protections when faced with strikes and protests.

Mr. Macron is hoping he can use success at home to push for broader changes in the eurozone.

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The French president is facing slumping polls amid public skepticism of his policies, but he has notched some victories. Of the five largest unions that officially represent employees in bargaining agreements, only the CGT's leadership has called for strikes. In addition, the CGT hasn't struck an alliance with far-left political groups, which are planning a separate demonstration on Sept. 23.

The 39-year-old leader said the new measures are necessary to encourage companies to hire by giving them more flexibility to adjust their workforces in difficult times. The proposal would enable small companies to strike deals on pay and conditions with their employees, without having to negotiate with unions. The measures also include a cap on fines for unfair dismissals and a limit on the time workers have to appeal layoffs.

The CGT said the measures will increase joblessness and instability. "This is the first step of a mobilization to make people aware of what's at stake," CGT leader Philippe Martinez said of the protests. The CGT has called for more strikes and demonstrations on Sept. 21.

Mr. Macron, meanwhile, was in the Caribbean visiting victims of Hurricane Irma on the island of St. Martin.

The French president hopes to persuade other eurozone countries to put their taxpayers' money into a shared budget to counter economic shocks, but said France must first show it is an asset and not a liability for the currency bloc by addressing its own economic problems.

The French leader has made a series of missteps that have hurt his approval ratings. Surveys show French voters oppose austerity measures and what they see as Mr. Macron's authoritative style, which was blamed for a budget spat with the army in July and the departure of the head of the armed forces.

Last week, the French leader drew fire from rivals when he said he would push through overhauls and cede no ground to "the lazy, cynics and extremists." Mr. Martinez described the remarks as "scandalous." On Monday, Mr. Macron stood by his comments, which he said referred to past governments.

"Those who think we have the luxury to do nothing and remain seated are making a profound error," Mr. Macron said.

The centrist CFDT union -- the largest by membership -- has said it is disappointed with the plans but won't join the protests. Force Ouvrière, a leftist union that has regularly protested alongside the CGT, also is staying on the sidelines this time.

But small groups from the moderate unions still showed up on Tuesday.

Laurent Saulnier, an information technology worker in the CFDT union, said he joined the protests because Mr. Macron had "crossed red lines" with the cap on fines for dismissals and by opening the possibility for new types of work contracts that would end when a project is completed. He said he expects unions to put up more resistance in the future.

"There aren't a million people in the street but all the unions are represented," Mr. Saulnier said.

Write to William Horobin at William.Horobin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 12, 2017 18:16 ET (22:16 GMT)