PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron may have won the first round of his battle to overhaul France’s economy, but the coming 10 days promise to bring far more protests and unrest to the streets as labor unions and the political left step up their opposition.
Last week’s demonstration by the Communist Party-linked CGT union against changes to the labor code drew many fewer protesters than expected, with police saying 220,000 people turned out nationwide, against union estimates of 400,000.
Despite opposition, the government will adopt the labor reform, which simplifies employment rules and makes hiring and firing easier, on Sept. 22.
But even if that battle may be lost for the unions, many workers, retirees, civil servants and youth are not giving up as they look warily toward Macron’s longer-term plans to overhaul the unemployment benefit and pensions systems as well.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, who sees himself as the main voice of opposition, has described Macron’s proposals as a “social coup d‘etat”. He is calling for a mass march on Paris by the party’s 530,000 mostly young members on Sept. 23.
On Monday, truck drivers belonging to the CFDT union, the largest in the country although politically more centrist, blocked some highways, including in the busy Pas-de-Calais area in the northeast, to protest the labor code changes.
“Today is a warning,” Patrick Blaise, secretary general of CFDT’s truck drivers, told Le Parisien newspaper. “If they don’t listen to us, CFDT’s truckers won’t stop there.”
On Sept. 21, the CGT union is calling for another round of nationwide protests and on Sept. 25 truck drivers belonging to CGT and Force Ouvriere, the third largest union, will begin rolling strikes, including targeting petrol stations.
Keeping the pressure on, union groups are calling on retirees to demonstrate on Sept. 28 against increases to social charges, which in France are applied to a variety of income sources and used to fund health care and welfare.
“We don’t intend to wait until the pension reform proposals to act,” said Fabrice Angei, a senior CGT official. “We need to put an end to the destruction of our social model.”
While Macron, 39, has seen his approval rating slump since his resounding election victory in May, he shows no sign of diluting his ambitious plans to retool the economy, including bringing down unemployment stuck above 9 percent for a decade.
But both he and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledge that the changes to the labor code are just the first step in a long program, with the other measures likely to provoke much greater opposition and cause more social disruption.
“This second phase is going to take longer than the current one,” Philippe said last week. “Behind these reforms isn’t only the desire to relaunch the economy,” he said. “It’s about our collective ability to be a country that acts decisively.”
Writing by Luke Baker; Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Arthur Connan; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg