French Public Sector Adds to Anti-Macron Protests -- Update

By William Horobin Features Dow Jones Newswires

French leader Emmanuel Macron's truce with his country's unions is showing signs of unraveling less than six months into his presidency, as public-sector workers took to the streets Tuesday to protest his attempts to overhaul the sluggish economy.

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For the first time in a decade, all nine of France's public-sector unions called on their members to strike, shutting down schools and disrupting flights and health services around the country.

The strikes, by unions that had initially given Mr. Macron their tacit support, suggest they won't stand by his side as he pursues sweeping changes that chip away at decades-old workplace protections many French see as essential rights.

In his first steps, Mr. Macron in September pushed through decrees to loosen labor laws, prompting demonstration by private-sector unions. The backlash against those measures is gaining momentum after Force Ouvrière, a main union that until now chose to stay on the sidelines, said this month it would join protests.

Demonstrators in Paris brandished placards saying they were "badly paid, distrusted, less secure and fed up," and chanted for public and private sector workers to unite their protests. Police said around 26,000 people attended the march in Paris, slightly more than the 24,000 counted at protests in September against Mr. Macron's changes to labor laws.

"I'm here to protest against Macron's general policies," said Stéphane Guyon, a university teacher who traveled from outside the capital.

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Mr. Macron wants to retool the French economy with more flexible labor laws and a leaner state that taxes and spends less. But with nearly 5.5 million people on the state payroll, the public sector is a powerful constituency -- one that has derailed reform efforts by past presidents.

"We are at a very important moment because public-sector action is always a significant indicator of opposition," said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris.

In his campaign, Mr. Macron branded his pro-business policies as central to a bipartisan economic renewal that would overcome France's traditional political and social divisions. The approach successfully tapped votes from right and left as support for traditional parties collapsed.

But Mr. Macron's alliance of supporters has proved fragile as old divides reopen. Cuts to taxes on companies, wealth and capital announced last month were particularly controversial, emboldening leftist critics who describe Mr. Macron as a "president of the rich."

Alain Gergaud, a railway worker protesting in Paris, said Mr. Macron has done too much for business and too little for workers.

"We clearly feel like his policies are on the right rather than the left, " Mr. Gergaud said.

The French leader has also turned off some potential supporters with a personal style his critics call aloof and dismissive. He has described his predecessors as lazy for not undertaking reforms and last week used a vulgar expression that includes the word "brothel" to criticize protesting factory workers for "creating havoc."

Demonstrators held up placards parodying Mr. Macron's remarks. "Macron, you've created havoc in the streets again," one read.

Surveys show Mr. Macron's popularity has declined abruptly compared with that of his predecessors at this stage in their terms. According to a national poll by Kantar Public last week, Mr. Macron's approval rating has dropped to 39% from 57% in June, with sharp declines in support among young people, public-sector workers and leftist voters.

The striking workers are protesting cuts to sick pay, a freeze in an index used to determine their salaries, increases in a payroll tax to finance social security, and plans to reduce the state payroll by 120,000 in the next five years. They say the moves betray the promises Mr. Macron made during the election campaign to bolster the spending power of all workers.

Mr. Macron says the pro-business measures are needed for the economy to match the growth rates of European peers and to bring down unemployment, which at over 9% is twice as high as in neighboring Germany.

Mr. Macron's government says it will use bonuses to ensure the impact of the measures doesn't reduce public-sector paychecks. Government officials also point to plans to reduce residency taxes that weigh disproportionately on poorer households, and lawmakers from Mr. Macron's party say they will amend the budget to ensure taxation on status symbols like yachts and supercars remains high.

"The idea that the budget is unbalanced is grounded in either misunderstanding or bad faith," French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said Monday.

The labor unions say the measures are insufficient and Mr. Macron isn't doing enough for low earners and public-sector workers. France's largest private- sector union, the CFDT, is backing Tuesday's public-sector strikes, despite staying away from demonstrations against the labor decrees in September.

"Lots of government decisions lately are going in the wrong direction: gifts to bosses and the most well-off and not enough social justice," Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT, said on Monday.

Analysts expect, however, that Mr. Macron won't change course even if that means more dramatic conflict with the unions. If Mr. Macron backed down, he would be hobbled for the remaining four years of his presidency, they say.

"There would be greater political danger if he gave the impression of giving up just when things start to wobble," said Emmanuel Rivière, head of Kantar Public in France.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 10, 2017 13:43 ET (17:43 GMT)