Emmanuel Macron

‘The battle is not over’: thousands rally against French President Emmanuel Macron’s labour reforms

Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of far left party France Unbowed, called on the public to swamp the capital after the laws were fast tracked by the new president

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:36pm

Firebrand French leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon has vowed a long battle against the labour law changes pushed through by President Emmanuel Macron as a tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate.

The leader of the hard left France Unbowed party had appealed to opponents of the changes to the labour code to “swamp” Paris to try and force Macron to back down on his signature reform.

The police estimated that 30,000 people took part in the third mass protest in two weeks against what Melenchon called Macron’s “offensive against the French people”.

The organisers estimated five times that, 150,000.

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Addressing the crowd a day after Macron signed the reform into law, his main opponent declared: “The battle is not over. It’s only beginning”.

Melenchon, 66, accused the centrist Macron, 39, of fuelling a “race to the bottom” by giving businesses more freedom to negotiate conditions with workers.

“The work contract will no longer be a safeguard but a sort of paper rag,” he warned.

Former investment banker Macron argues that the changes, which also make it easier to fire workers while giving higher payouts to those made redundant, will help bring down stubbornly high unemployment of 9.6 per cent.

He fast tracked the measures, which were eagerly awaited by the business community and France’s EU partners, using executive orders that gave parliament almost no input.

The changes chip into worker protections that have long been sacrosanct in France, frustrating reform-minded governments whether on the left or the right.

The left has also come out swinging against his plans to cut housing subsidies and reduce the scope of a wealth tax, claiming it proves he is a right-winger.

“France has never had so many billionaires and millionaires. Why is it always the workers who have to tighten their belts?” said Louis Bousquet, an unemployed 33-year-old who travelled from the central Creuse region for Saturday’s protest.

Police deployed as French unions stage countrywide protests against President Macron’s labour reforms

Zabou Hervieu, 48, said she was worried for her 10-year-old daughter.

“I’m here for her future. Will there still be real jobs with real salaries when she grows up,” she wondered.

Macron shrugged off the weekend’s protests after signing five executive orders, insisting he has a mandate for change after his presidential win in May and his party’s thumping parliamentary victory in June.

“Emmanuel Macron sees the election as a blank cheque to do what he wants ... He has an authoritarian approach to power,” said David Guiraud, France Unbowed’s 24-year-old spokesman on youth issues.

Melenchon, a lawmaker who placed fourth in the presidential election, has seized on the disarray in the rudderless mainstream left and right to present his France Unbowed as the only real opposition – both in parliament and on the street.

“It’s the street that toppled France’s kings, it’s the street that drove out the Nazis,” Melenchon, a consummate campaigner, said on Saturday.

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The resistance has, however, been weaker than that faced by Macron’s Socialist predecessor François Hollande last year over his changes to the labour code, which sparked months of sometimes violent protests.

On Thursday, about 132,000 people demonstrated across France, down from around twice that number a week earlier.

Addressing reporters at the Elysee Palace, Macron boasted he had implemented his campaign pledge to shake up labour relations “in record time”.

Polls show his approval ratings plunging as he moves ahead with his programme of tax and spending cuts, with a voter satisfaction rating of about 40 per cent.

His characterisation of opponents as “slackers” has become a rallying cry, with protesters coining slogans, such as “Slackers of the world, unite!”

Philippe Braud, professor emeritus at Paris’s Sciences Po university, said he believed popularity was not currently a concern for Macron.

“He knows he won’t be defeated in the street,” Braud said.

The country’s young leader could also suffer another setback in France’s Senate elections, which took place on Sunday.

While poor results in the vote would do little to stop the 39-year-old centrist from governing, they could potentially complicate his plans to push through further constitutional reforms.

Half of the seats in the upper house are up for grabs in the indirect election, in which only elected lawmakers – parliamentarians, mayors, local councillors – can vote.