Emmanuel Macron came to power on a promise of reform and after winning convincingly last May, claimed to have the mandate he needed to carry out the type of change that every French president since Francois Mitterrand has tried and failed to see through.
But even before his first attempt at reform – an overhaul of France’s famously rigid labor laws – Macron has seen his support in the polls drop. That, say some union leaders, will make it impossible for him to transform France as he promised he would.
As Fabrice Angei of the CGT union told CNN: “In this country the workforce knows it has the power simply to stop working” and to grind the entire economy to a halt. And, he added, this time the whole world is watching to see which way, in the land of “freedom and of the declaration of human rights,” the class struggle will go on.
So far, it has looked as though Macron was winning.
Two of France’s biggest unions – Force Ouvriere and the CFDT – have announced that they will not be taking part in a strike planned for Tuesday, preferring instead to continue negotiating with the government.
That’s partly down to one of the big sweeteners offered as part of the reforms – a 25% increase in severance packages – but also, some warn, a desire on the part of the unions to keep their powder dry ahead of future reforms to such areas as employment insurance and professional training, changes that could threaten the funding and therefore the very future of the unions.
For now the government looks as though it may not encounter the sort of opposition that François Hollande faced in the spring of 2016 when it tried to overhaul the labor laws, this despite the fact that Macron is seeking to go even further than Hollande had – both in the way the reforms are to be carried out and in their substance.
Macron’s plans were laid out on August 31 in a series of five executive orders all aimed at “making up for the lost years, the years of missed rendezvous,” according to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
The goal is to give companies more flexibility in hiring and firing workers, more power to negotiate working conditions directly with employees and less financial risk in cases of wrongful dismissals.
The measures would also make it easier for foreign companies to close sites in France and give new flexibility to companies with fewer than 50 employees, which make up 95% of French business.
It is no surprise that French business leaders and economists have welcomed the reform plans.
More surprising perhaps is that for now the planned strike will not see the sort of unified union opposition that has been seen in the past.
But the CGT, which is leading the charge against the proposals, says that although some unions have chosen not to take part in the strike, there is more opposition to the reforms than the government realizes.
The CGT’s Angei believes the numbers on the streets on Tuesday will be high enough to show that Macron will not get his reforms through easily.
From a legislative point of view, the French president may have taken the precaution of reforming by decree, but Angei warns that the workforce itself will block the process even if Parliament can’t.
After all, he says, “polls show show the anger that has led to Macron’s drop in popularity and that anger can also lead to revolt.”