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France’s Macron enacts his contested labour reforms

French President Emmanuel Macron signs documents in front of the media to promulgate a new labour bill in his office at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on September 22, 2017.Macron on September 22 signed sweeping changes to France’s complex labour code into law, sealing a signature reform after four months at the helm. The measures, which have triggered mass protests, are designed to give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their workers and makes it easier to lay off staff./ AFP PHOTO / POOL / PHILIPPE WOJAZER

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday signed sweeping changes to France’s complex labour code into law, ramming through a landmark reform four months into his administration despite protests from some trade unionists.

The reform ushers in an “unprecedented transformation of our social and economic model,” the 39-year-old Macron said, adding that it had been “carried out in record time”.

The measures are designed to give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their workers while making it easier and less costly to shed staff.

Macron signed the reform, contained in five executive orders, before television cameras in a US-inspired novelty for a French president.

The overhaul, eagerly awaited by the business community and France’s EU partners, was fast-tracked via executive orders as a way of avoiding a prolonged battle in the streets.

Three months of negotiations with union leaders produced a split between those willing to compromise — the CFDT and FO — and those determined to fight the reforms, led by the largest and most militant union, the CGT.

But the resistance has been far weaker than that faced by Macron’s Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande over his changes to the labour code, which sparked a wave of sometimes violent protests last year.

On Thursday, some 132,000 people demonstrated across France, just over half the numbers who took part last week in the first major street protests organised by trade unions since the centrist Macron was elected in May.

Nevertheless, the hardline CGT union has vowed to continue to combat his reforms, while radical left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon wants to get tens of thousands into the streets on Saturday.

Melenchon, the head of the France Unbowed party, has emerged as the main opposition leader after Macron’s centrist movement sidelined the traditional left and right parties that have long alternated power in France.

But the reform comes as the former investment banker’s approval ratings have plunged, with recent polls showing that only around 40 percent of French voters are satisfied with his performance.

Protesters have seized upon Macron’s recent criticism of opponents to the labour market changes as “slackers”, with slogans such as “Watch out, Macron, the slackers are in the street”.

– ‘Humility’ lacking –
The head of the CGT union that has led this month’s protests, Philippe Martinez, warned Macron: “When you are president, you should show humility rather than strutting about.”

Philippe Braud, professor emeritus at Paris’s Sciences Po university, said he thinks popularity is not a concern for Macron.

“He knows he won’t be defeated in the street,” Braud told AFP.

The Macron team insists that the reforms will encourage hiring and will offer the best cure to France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, which stands at 9.6 percent, roughly twice the levels in Britain or Germany.

Public opinion is divided, according to a recent BVA poll, with most respondents saying they think the reforms will boost France’s competitiveness but fail to improve employees’ working conditions.

Critics see the use of executive orders — which meant there was a very limited parliamentary debate about the contents of the law — as reinforcing perceptions of Macron as a monarchical or even “pharaonic” leader.

But Macron insists he has a mandate for change after sweeping the board in presidential and parliamentary elections in May and June.

“Democracy does not happen in the street,” Macron said in New York on Wednesday in another broadside at the protesters.

The reform will enter the statute books on Monday, though a few changes, including a measure to streamline workers’ committees will not take effect until the end of the year.

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