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article imageNew protests as France set to enshrine labour reforms

By Gina DOGGETT, Adam PLOWRIGHT (AFP)     Sep 21, 2017 in World

Unions staged new protests Thursday against an overhaul of France's labour laws, hoping to build pressure on President Emmanuel Macron days before his flagship reforms are expected to enter into force.

The marches and strikes come a week after hundreds of thousands of people -- 200,000 according to police, half a million according to organisers -- demonstrated against the measures in the first major challenge to Macron since he was elected in May.

More rallies are expected Saturday, staged by hard-left political party France Unbowed, which will provide another measure of the resistance to 39-year-old Macron's pro-business agenda.

The Communist-backed CGT union has organised Thursday's protests and its secretary general, former car worker Philippe Martinez, called the first round last Tuesday "a good start".

"What's important today and in the days and weeks ahead is that the movement gets bigger," Martinez added.

But Macron has insisted his government will not compromise on the reforms which make it easier for companies to hire and fire and were worked out during three months of negotiations with union leaders.

"Democracy does not happen in the street," Macron said in New York on Wednesday, insisting he has a mandate for change after having swept the board in presidential and parliamentary elections in May and June.

Philippe Braud, a professor emeritus of Sciences Po university, said the government has the upper hand and that the protest movement in France "has been weakening for the past 10 years".

"There's a sort of resignation among the French to reforms that are seen as necessary," Braud told AFP, adding that their passage will be a "big victory for Macron".

The president has also been boosted by splits in the labour movement, with the CFDT and FO unions so far declining to back the protests and strikes.

Disruption at companies and to public services was limited last week.

"When the unions, when the workers are divided, that is generally when the company owners win," Martinez acknowledged Thursday as he called again for his counterparts to join in.

- Fast-tracked changes -

The protests follow similar demonstrations  such as when people took to the streets in Marseille
The protests follow similar demonstrations, such as when people took to the streets in Marseille

The labour changes, which are being fast-tracked via executive orders, are designed to give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their workers while reducing the costs of firing staff.

Public opinion is divided, according to a recent BVA poll, with most saying they think the reforms will boost France's competitiveness but fail to improve employees' working conditions.

Macron insists the reforms will encourage hiring, helping to bring down stubbornly high employment of 9.5 percent.

Once his cabinet approves the measures Friday, they are expected to be published in the official gazette and enter law.

The use of executive orders is a way to pass the measures quickly and avoid a prolonged battle in the streets -- as seen last year when Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande made similar changes to labour law.

- 'Social coup d'etat' -

President Emmanuel Macron has low approval ratings
President Emmanuel Macron has low approval ratings

While the strategy may succeed in overhauling France's complex workplace regulations, some critics see the method as reinforcing perceptions of Macron as a monarchical leader.

Criticism of him as aloof and sometimes authoritarian have contributed to sharp falls in his popularity, with his approval rating languishing at 44 percent according to an Odoxa poll out on Monday.

Macron derided his opponents earlier month as "slackers, cynics and extremists".

The phrase became a rallying cry for protesters, with many of them proudly declaring themselves "slackers" during last week's protests.

But Braud, the political analyst, believes Macron "doesn't care about his popularity, knowing that he won't be defeated in the street".

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of the France Unbowed party, has slammed the reforms as no less than a "social coup d'etat".

Melenchon, a radical leftist, has emerged as the figurehead for the opposition against Macron as France's other political parties squabble over the election results or search for new leaders.

The labour reforms, which have broad support from other EU countries, are crucial to Macron's wider plans for the 28-member bloc which he has pledged to overhaul.

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