Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, listens during a news conference in Athens, Greece. (Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis/Bloomberg)

French Unions Fail to Draw Big Crowds Against Macron Reform

(Bloomberg) -- French unions failed to attract big crowds to demonstrate against President Emmanuel Macron’s landmark labor-market reform, initial estimates show.

The CGT, the main union holdout against Macron’s plan to add flexibility to the labor code, said 60,000 people marched under rainy skies in Paris, while police estimated 24,000. On June 23, 2016 unions claimed 200,000 protesters and police estimated 70,000 in demonstrations against President Francois Hollande’s plans for reform.

The low numbers suggest a victory for Macron, who spent the day in the French Caribbean consoling victims of Hurricane Irma -- diverting television coverage in the process. Barely four months into his term, the 39-year-old has staked both his political capital and his economic strategy for the next five years on the changes that add flexibility to labor rules.

Labor activists needed a show of unity and popular support to stand a chance of watering down the changes and slowing his momentum on a host of other issues such as pensions and public spending. Further protests are scheduled for Sept. 21 and Sept. 23, a Saturday.

“This is not brilliant but it’s not terrible for the unions,” Raymond Soubie, who was social affairs adviser to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said on France 5 television. “We need to watch what happens next. Real movements can crystallize quickly around issues you don’t expect.”

Macron’s popularity has declined precipitously ahead of France’s traditional fall protest season. A poll published by Elabe last week showed that only 37 percent of voters have confidence in his leadership, down from 45 percent in July. That’s five points below the level his one-time mentor Hollande registered at this stage of his presidency -- and Hollande went on to post record-low approval ratings for a French leader.

Before visiting the Caribbean islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy Tuesday, Macron was being lambasted in the media for being to slow to get to the disaster zone. He has also been rebuffing complaints about showing contempt for regular French people in recent speeches.

‘Who Are the Extremists?’

After remarking in Bucharest last month that the French “detest reform,” Macron said in Athens Friday that he wouldn’t “give in to the lazy, the cynics or extremists,” in his effort to modernize France. Protesters picked up on the theme carrying placards such as “Lazy of the country unite!”

Macron is sticking by his comments, saying they are being taken out of context and were referring to previous governments, not the French population. That isn’t stopping Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the leftist France Unbowed party that is increasingly seen as the main opposition.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Melenchon said on BFM TV Sunday. “The head of state is attacking regular French people. Who are these lazy people? Who are the extremists?”

Melenchon is glorying in his new-found role as de facto leader of the opposition. About 32 percent of voters see France Unbowed as the main opponent of the government, compared with 14 percent for Marine Le Pen’s National Front and 9 percent for Sarkozy’s party, the Republicans.

More Reforms

Having originally opted out of the Tuesday marches to focus on his own Sept. 23 demonstration, Melenchon changed his mind and decided to participate in the CGT’s effort. He marched alongside labor activists in Marseille and made an early comment to the cameras -- well ahead of CGT leader Philippe Martinez.

For Macron, the labor reform is only the first of several he intends to use to bolster France’s weight in the economic governance of the euro area and lift its lackluster performance. In the months ahead he plans to curb public spending, overhaul France’s generous unemployment-insurance system and start grappling with France’s multiple special pension regimes, such as the one that allows train drivers to retire as young as 52.

“The government needs to show it can stick to its plan,” said Vincent Thibault, head of opinion at pollster Elabe in Paris. “But Macron cannot just steamroller the majority of the population with his reforms at a time when his popularity is in free-fall.”