Protests, strikes hit France as unions challenge Macron reforms

PARIS • French unions launched a day of strikes and protests against Mr Emmanuel Macron's flagship labour reforms, a key test as he stakes his presidency on overhauling the sluggish economy.

Some 4,000 strikes were called yesterday under the action led by France's biggest trade union, the CGT, with rail workers, students and civil servants urged to protest in cities from Paris to Marseille and Toulouse. More than 180 street protests were organised nationwide against the Macron reforms, which are intended to tackle stubbornly high unemployment by loosening the rules that govern how businesses hire and fire people.

In Paris, morning rail traffic yesterday was operating at between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of the normal rate on suburban lines of the SNCF rail network, while two lines of the suburban RER metro system were hit. The disruption was "in line with expectations" and the "majority of the lines are functioning normally", an SNCF spokesman said.

Air traffic controllers were also urged to strike, with Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair warning on Monday that it had cancelled 110 flights scheduled for yesterday.

The turnout will serve as a yardstick for unions' ability to mobilise as deep splits have emerged in the labour movement between those determined to fight and those prepared to compromise.

The business-friendly Mr Macron sparked a backlash last week by describing opponents of the shake-up as "slackers" and "cynics" - comments blasted as "scandalous" by CGT chief Philippe Martinez.

The 39-year-old centrist President, who swept to power in May on promises to reinvigorate the economy and transcend left-right politics, used executive orders to fast-track his labour reforms. They must be ratified by Parliament in the coming months, but are expected to do so given the large majority won in June by Mr Macron's Republic on the Move party. Mr Macron is determined to bring down France's unemployment rate - at 9.5 per cent, roughly twice that of Britain or Germany - and sees simplifying the unwieldy labour code as key to achieving this.

"This is not a labour law, it is a law that gives full powers to employers," said the CGT's Mr Martinez.

Mr Eric Beynel of the Solidaires union, which backs the protests, vowed that workers would keep up the pressure "until the orders are withdrawn".

But other unions have signalled a willingness to compromise, including the Force Ouvriere union, though some branches planned to defy orders.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Protests, strikes hit France as unions challenge Macron reforms'. Print Edition | Subscribe