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France’s Macron Faces his First Social Challenges | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People march during a protest called by several French unions against the labor law reform, on September 12, 2017 in Nantes, western France. (Getty Images)

Paris – Dark clouds have started to loom over the Elysee Palace as the French president and his government have to face the people’s discontent over the labor reform law, which its opponents deemed as a “step back” and “gift” to employers.

A number of protests, rallies and strikes were staged in France on Tuesday. They were called for the by the main federal labor union and with the support of the left and student bodies.

This served as the first warning for President Emmanuel Macron’s new term.

The president has however repeatedly said that he will not waiver in his reform process.

The French are gearing up for two more days of strikes, protests and rallies over social issues.

The first is set for September 21 and the other on September 23. The second rally was called for the undisputed leader of the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who urged for demonstrations in Paris and major cities against the “social coup” led by Macron and his government.

The trouble back home was accompanied by the catastrophe that befell the Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, both of which are French territories, after they suffered major destruction from powerful Hurricane Irma.

The French government has been accused of failing to anticipate the catastrophe and of dealing with its aftermath. Macron visited the islands on Tuesday and Wednesday, offering support and solidarity with struggling residents.

Macron’s popularity has taken a hit in wake of the social protests and the Irma disaster. Doubts have now started to surround his economic and social policies, which many believe benefit the upper class at the expense of the middle and lower ones.

Protesters on Tuesday said Macron’s reforms will give employers new powers to dismiss them, bypass trade unions and reduce their ability to defend their rights.

The hard-line CGT union called for strikes and organized some 180 marches against the labor changes, unveiled last month by Macron’s government.

Union leader Philippe Martinez told the crowd in Paris that reforming labor rules was a futile effort to create jobs.

“No reform which has destroyed the labor law … has reversed the unemployment trend,” Martinez said at the Place de la Bastille, the starting point of the Paris march. Such reforms don’t lead to “a job with which one can build his life on.”

The hard-line CGT union said 60,000 people participated in the Paris protest. Police said 24,000 people marched and that some 300 black-clad and hooded youths who joined late in the day pelted security forces with objects, briefly halting the event.

Macron’s labor decrees are the first step in what he hopes will be deep economic changes. The decrees are to be finalized this month and ratified by year’s end.

Critics accuse the government of being undemocratic for using a special method to push the measures through parliament.

Companies argue that existing rules prevent them from hiring and contribute to France’s high unemployment rate, currently around 10 percent.

The protests come amid anger at a comment last week by Macron suggesting that opponents of labor reform are “lazy.”

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said on RTL radio Tuesday that the president didn’t mean workers themselves but politicians who failed to update French labor rules for a globalized age.

Some unions refused to join the protests, preferring to negotiate with the government over upcoming changes to unemployment and retirement rules instead of taking their grievances to the street.