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NY Times, Sept. 13 2017
Macron Faces First Big Street Protests, a Challenge to His Labor Overhaul
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and AURELIEN BREEDEN
PARIS — Thousands turned out Tuesday for mass demonstrations intended to
protest the country’s new labor code, but by day’s end the anger seemed
directed more specifically at its author: President Emmanuel Macron,
whose ambition for change has unnerved many in France.
The rallies were the first major street protests faced by Mr. Macron,
and a barometer of the public’s reaction to him. The crowd size was
about what had been expected, and smaller than demonstrations last year
against changes in labor laws.
But they nonetheless indicated the challenges ahead for Mr. Macron, who
has seen his popularity plunge since he upset France’s political
landscape in May by winning the presidency and creating a new political
party, which won a majority of seats in Parliament.
On Tuesday, Mr. Macron was nowhere near the protests, but rather was
visiting the French islands of St. Martin and St. Barthélemy in the
Caribbean after they were hit by Hurricane Irma last week. Still, the
president was ever-present in the streets.
He, rather than any specific change to the labor code, was the most
frequent target of criticism, particularly over what has been perceived
as a dismissive and insulting attitude toward workers. That included
recent remarks that were interpreted as implying that opponents of his
labor law were lazy.
Toting signs and chanting, people seemed more preoccupied with Mr.
Macron than with the law. “Macron you are rotten, the slackers are in
the streets,” some chanted at rallies in Paris.
The taunt played on remarks Mr. Macron made last week in Greece, saying
he was determined not to cede anything, “neither to slackers, nor to
cynics, nor extremists.”
Although Mr. Macron didn’t specify exactly to whom he was alluding with
the remark, he later claimed that he meant “all of those who for the
past 15 years have said we mustn’t move in France and in Europe.” Many
opponents of his changes nonetheless felt personally outraged and aggrieved.
“I’ve been working for the past 32 years. I wake up everyday at 5 a.m.
I’m no slacker and my work is hard,” Serge Amely, 50, a nurse’s aide,
said at the demonstration on Tuesday, adding that he felt the comments
were “unworthy” of a leader.
In addition to union members, some supporters of the far-left France
Unbowed movement, which is headed by the former presidential candidate
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also turned out for the march.
Their focus, too, appeared to be less the labor law and more the future
belt-tightening that Mr. Macron has promised, as well as his style of
Organizers said they would stage more demonstrations in the coming weeks
— the next one on Sept. 23. That leaves open the possibility that
numbers in the streets could build.
More than 60,000 people demonstrated in Paris on Tuesday, according to
unions, who called the protests a success. The Paris police prefecture
said the figure was closer to 24,000. There were smaller protests in
more than 180 cities, towns and communities around France.
The overall mood was calm, though law enforcement officials used tear
gas and protesters sometimes threw rocks during sporadic clashes on the
fringes of the main march in Paris. Last year, weeks of protests against
similar labor changes were sometimes marred by violence.
The changes to the labor code would loosen regulations for small
companies, make it easier to hire and fire employees, and enable
businesses to negotiate certain workplace issues at the company level
rather than having to abide by industrywide agreements.
Mr. Mélenchon said on Tuesday that Mr. Macron “can and must back down.”
“This isn’t our last stand,” Mr. Mélenchon told reporters at a
demonstration in the southern city of Marseille, part of the area he
represents in the lower house of Parliament. “We are organizing a
relentless defense of the labor code.”
But the government is not expected to budge. Mr. Macron is enacting the
overhaul to the labor rules by decree, and the changes are expected to
be implemented this month.
Undercutting the protests’ impact are union divisions, with only one
major union mounting full-throated opposition.
Only the hard-line General Confederation of Labor, or C.G.T., called on
its members to demonstrate on Tuesday. Several other major unions chose
to compromise with the government and try to shape its policies to make
them more acceptable to workers.
Alain Cure, a 66-year-old elementary-school principal in Paris and a
union member, said it was “important to show that we, as union workers,
Mr. Cure, who was waiting for a march to start on the Place de la
Bastille in Paris, said that although the labor overhaul would not
affect him, it was important to send a message ahead of other planned
changes. Mr. Macron’s government is also planning to overhaul France’s
pension and unemployment systems.
“If Macron passes the reforms, then he will have more powers to pass
further reforms,” Mr. Cure said.
Follow Aurelien Breeden @aurelienbrd and Elian Peltier @ElianPeltier on
Elian Peltier and Eloise Stark contributed reporting.
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