- - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

PARIS — In a risky move, President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a political second wind by taking on the third rail of French politics.

Faced with plummeting polls and a string of public embarrassments just four months after his stunning electoral win, the 39-year-old president is facing a critical early test this month as he rolls out reforms to France’s notoriously rigid labor laws in a bid to reinvigorate the country’s economy.

Even backed by a massive majority in the national parliament, it’s a fraught move in a country that boasts a powerful labor movement and one that, as Mr. Macron recently observed, “hates reform.”

A former investment banker whose new Republic on the Move political movement swept aside France’s traditional left and right parties in May, Mr. Macron and his supporters say French labor laws — the 3,000-page Code du Travail — inhibit flexibility and stifle innovation, hindering France in the battle to create new businesses and stay competitive internationally. A former investment banker, Mr. Macron argues that an overhaul of generous employment and benefit mandates is essential to upholding his campaign pledge to cut the unemployment rate to 7 percent from 9.5 percent by 2022.

But the honeymoon for the political newcomer has been brutally brief, cut short in part by self-inflicted wounds.

A YouGov poll released this week for the HuffPost and CNews put Mr. Macron’s job performance approval at an all-time low of 30 percent — lower than President Trump’s.

Mr. Macron has been hurt by a fight over spending cuts to student stipends, the resignation of France’s top military officer over feared budget cuts, and damaging personal revelations, including his spending of $31,000 on makeup in his first three months in office. Edouard Philippe, the conservative prime minister whom Mr. Macron picked to broaden the centrist appeal of his government, is getting equally dismal poll ratings.

A separate Ifop poll for Dimanche Ouest France over the weekend found that just 10 percent of French voters now think Mr. Macron will be able to successfully transform France by the end of his five-year term.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron has dismissed the negative reviews of his first 100 days in office, and again like Mr. Trump, he has lashed out at what he sees as unfair coverage from the press.

“Journalists have a problem,” he said this week amid criticism that he has been aloof from the press and ducked hard questions about his record. “They are too interested in themselves and not enough in the country. Let’s talk about the French people.”

The president also argues that bad poll numbers reflect the scope of his ambitious reform program.

“I’ll have to live with people’s impatience for the next few months,” Mr. Macron told the weekly magazine Le Point on Wednesday, calling the poor reports in the press irrelevant.

Labor pains

The polls do give Mr. Macron credit for trying to honor a central promise: to improve France’s international competitiveness through an overhaul of labor laws in the land of the 35-hour workweek.

“It used to be one company for a lifetime, so signing that one contract was important,” said Nathan Skrzypczak, a 26-year-old technical manager at a digital business marketing startup. “But now there are many more people working in small companies. The old ways no longer work. We need reforms to adapt to the rules and the frameworks of how it’s done today.”

But that openness — especially among younger French citizens — clashes with a deep-rooted tradition of the state guaranteeing generous protections to workers.

“The gamble today is for the country to adapt itself to the technological and economic realities of modern days without necessarily altering the philosophy of the French social system,” said Paris-based political commentator Pierre Haski. “For a long time, French people didn’t want to change anything if it meant they would have to renege on a social system to which they are greatly attached.”

But, after years of near-stagnant economic growth, an Odoxa opinion poll has found that 56 percent of French citizens now agree that reform is necessary.

After a major buildup, Mr. Philippe announced the plan last week. “Our goal is simple,” the prime minister said. “It aims to favor job creation by giving more security and visibility to entrepreneurs in their decision to hire, more guarantees to employees.”

The proposed measures include capping damages awarded by employment tribunals in cases of unfair dismissal, increasing severance packages by 25 percent and letting businesses with fewer than 50 employees — 95 percent of French firms — lay off workers without the input of labor union representatives. Current law requires that input.

The reforms are also expected to give businesses greater power to negotiate working conditions, bonuses and vacations individually rather accept a standard imposed throughout a given industry.

“I think it’s all going in the right direction. It’s all positive and clever,” said Francis Becard, 57, head of the School of Business and Management in Troyes, east of Paris. “Companies should be allowed to negotiate internally with employees. I think it’s right.”

But unions have repeatedly derailed attempts to reform France’s labor market.

Mr. Macron included powerful unions in drafting the new rules, making concessions in some areas and maintaining a tough line in others. His tactics led two of the country’s largest unions not to oppose the rules.

Anne Marie Dupont, a 65-year-old retired aeronautics worker and member of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor union, said Mr. Macron avoided reforms that would have galvanized her to take to the streets in protest.

“We were so fearful of a revolution,” she said. “They are changes, but they are not so revolutionary. It’s not as bad as we thought.”

Protests planned

Despite his early stumbles, Mr. Macron’s new political party and its allies have a cushion after winning a strong majority of seats in parliamentary elections in June. Those lawmakers have given the president approval to make the reforms via executive orders to avoid lengthy parliamentary debates that might undermine the changes. Those orders are expected to come into effect at the end of the month.

But not all labor unions are on board with the reforms. Dissidents are planning two days of potentially disruptive protests starting Tuesday.

“It’s the end of the employment contract,” said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the General Confederation of Labor. “The employment contract no longer exists.”

Leftist lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon, who ran against Mr. Macron for president, also urged citizens to take to the streets of Paris on Sept. 23 to protest the pro-business reforms he called a “social coup d’etat.”

Many Parisians agreed with those sentiments.

“These reforms are just addressed to industrialists. We get the feeling it’s not about us,” said Alex, a Paris street market vendor selling socks. “I believe that the people from below are not involved with what’s happening up there. Those from above make decisions for those below.”

With labor divided, however, Mr. Macron looks poised to take credit for changes that other French leaders have failed to achieve, Mr. Haski said.

“What is certain today is that France has broken off with 10 or more years of failed politics where it has been unable to reform itself, to embrace the digital revolution, to understand the new international balance of power,” the commentator said. “For the first time, we have a president who has a fine understanding of the new economic stakes.”

Paris Deputy Pacome Rupin, a Republic on the Move member, said Mr. Macron’s success has been marrying economic foresight with the political savvy to get the job done.

“It’s a matter of method,” he said. “When people feel respected and trusted, when they are informed, it works. This is the major change from the previous governments.”

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