PARIS, France - Days after the French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his crunch labour reform, he faced his first strike action on Tuesday, as several hundred demonstrators from the country’s major hardline union, CGT took to the streets in all big cities.
Macron’s business-friendly agenda proposes changes to the country’s draconian labour code, a proposal that the country’s administration has dubbed a "make or break" reform.
However, almost instantly after unveiling the plan, Macron’s administration faced opposition from France’s labour unions - especially the major hardline union, CGT which blasted the reform, arguing that it spelled "the end of the work contract.”
The moderate CFDT meanwhile called the details of the reform "deeply disappointing.”
On Tuesday, workers from the CGT union began marching through French cities to protest against a loosening of labor laws.
Philippe Martinez, the head of the Communist Party-linked CGT sounded a call to the working class and branded the reforms a “social coup d‘etat.”
Martinez said that the nationwide protests were the “first phase” and more would follow.
He noted, “The president should listen to the people, understand them, rather than cause divisions.”
He also took offense at Macron’s pledge to give no ground to “slackers,” calling Macron’s reference to “slackers” an insult to workers.
Almost immediately, demonstrators in Paris and other big cities seized on the president’s use of word ‘lazy’ as rallying slogan for protests.
Last week, during a trip to Athens, Macron told the local French community, “I am fully determined and I won’t cede any ground, not to slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners.”
He pointed out that the “slackers” comment was aimed at those who had failed to push through reforms in the past.
However, political opponents and some unions took it as an attack on the unemployed or on workers making the most of job protection.
Speaking at a demonstration in Marseille, leftist firebrand of the radical France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has become Macron’s most vocal opponent in parliament said, “Mr Macron knows very well it’s a power struggle, that’s what he wants. We will make him back down.”
According to the CGT union, 60,000 turned out to demonstrate in France’s second city, while police said they estimated that 7,500 came out to protest.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the state-owned utility said that just over 11 percent of the workforce at EDF, which operates France’s fleet of 48 nuclear reactors, took part in the strike.
The smaller Force Ouvriere (FO), usually an ally of the CGT, also decided to stay away.
Edouard Philippe, the prime minister insisted the street protests would not result in any changes to the new laws.
He said the new labour laws had been spelled out to voters before the presidential and parliament elections as the solution to France’s mass-unemployment problem.
This is not the first time that Labor unions have scuppered attempts to weaken France’s labor code - however this time, while CGT thrashed the reforms, two other unions, including the largest, the CFDT, declined to join the protests.
The future of the reform, experts believe, will completely depend on 39-year-old Macron's ability to drive through the reform by executive order and not bow to street protests.
The currently labour code in France, in over 3,000 pages specifies laws on workers' rights - but some of these laws are over a century old.
Considering French jobless rate currently stands at 9.5 percent of the active population, Macron said while unveiling the reform, "France is the only major economy of the European Union that has not beaten mass unemployment.”
He said that he believes that hugely protective workers rights scare companies from taking on new workers.
He also argued that a more flexible labour market will "free up" the economy - adding, the overhaul had to be "ambitious and efficient enough" to spur job creation.
Stressing that he would stand firm against the “forces of the old world,” Macron recognised the "impatience of the French people,” reflected in plunging approval ratings over the summer.
He had stated last month that the plan was to "profoundly transform the economy, society and the political landscape," saying opposition to this came from "old parties, old politicians, and their allies.”
The reform includes 36 measures in five decrees, aimed at making it easier to adapt work time, pay and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.
The administration has claimed that the reforms would “for the first time” prioritize "small and medium and sized businesses.”
The reforms also include laws in which employers will have more freedom to negotiate terms and conditions with employees at the company level, rather than being bound by industry-wide collective agreements - a change that some unions are resisting.
The reforms also include a clause that companies with less than 50 employees will be able to negotiate with a staff representative without union involvement.
It specifies that bosses of companies with less than 20 staff will be able to call referendums on changes to conditions.
Amongst the other measures included in the reforms are streamlining workers' committees, which are mandatory within large companies, and expanding the use of flexible "project contracts.”
Multinationals whose French operations are struggling will find it easier to lay off staff, while redundant workers will receive higher payouts as part of the reforms that are being considered a concession to companies.
Macron has vowed to cut the current unemployment rate (9.5 percent), to 7 percent by 2022 and the government plans to adopt the new measures, being implemented by decree, on September 22.