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French workers protest Macron's labor reforms

September 12, 2017

Four months after French President Emmanuel Macron was elected, workers have held a day of protests against changes to strict labor laws. The hard-left CGT union has called for workers to stage walkouts.

Protesters demonstrate against Macron's labor reforms in Paris
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron faced his first major street protests on Tuesday when the country's largest union launched nationwide demonstrations against plans to reform the labor market.

Hard-left CGT union leader Philippe Martinez branded Macron's reforms a "social coup d'etat" as he called on rail workers, students and civil servants to join the protests.

Read more: What are Emmanuel Macron's labor reforms?

The CGT said 180 street protests and some 4,000 strikes were taking place.

"It's a first one and it looks like it's a success," Martinez said. 

The union said 400,000 people had turned out to march across the country, but the interior ministry put the number at 223,000 protesters.

However, despite thousands taking to the streets, the number of protesters appeared to be less than last year, when disruptive demonstrations rocked France for months. The impact of the protests on rail services, airports and public services also appeared to be limited. 

Although there were some isolated clashes between anarchists and the police in Paris, with tear gas fired at one point, the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

'Rise to the challenge'

Jean-Luc Melenchon, former presidential candidate and leader of the far-left movement France Unbowed, said he was confident Macron could be "made to pull back" from the reforms.

"Mr. Macron knows that this is a trial of strength and he looked for it. Now it's up to us to rise to the challenge," Melenchon said after joining protests in the southern French city of Marseille.

Pushing forward

Macron, who was elected in May on a ticket to tackle red tape and high costs associated with hiring and firing staff, has vowed to go ahead with the shake-up, despite a backlash that has seen his popularity plummet in recent weeks.

Read more: Should France follow Germany's lead?

The 39-year-old centrist has fast-tracked the reforms using presidential executive orders. The reforms, which include a cap on payouts for dismissals and give greater freedom for companies to set pay and working conditions, is scheduled to come into effect on September 22.

Macron last week described opponents of his reforms as "slackers" and "cynics" - comments that union representatives called "scandalous."

Other unions set to negotiate

But while the CGT has called its members out - including those from the transport, oil and power sectors - several other unions, including the Force Ouvriere (FO), say they are prepared to compromise in an attempt to help kick-start the French economy. The country's stubbornly high unemployment rate at 9.5 percent is roughly twice that of Germany and Britain.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron's labor market reform – uncontroversial and insufficient

The current strict labor code has been staunchly protected by workers and unions despite attempts by successive governments to introduce reforms that have already taken place in many other European countries.

'Monsieur Hartz' – Macron's reformer

cw,ls,mm/jm (AFP, Reuters)