Why Business-Friendly Reforms Are Sparking Street Protests in France

The country’s sacrosanct labor code has been fiercely guarded by unions—but the president has his own ideas.

A masked demonstrator holds a flag of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour union (CFDT) in Paris during a national protest against the government's labour reforms on September 18, 2017. 
A masked demonstrator holds a flag of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour union (CFDT) in Paris during a national protest against the government's labour reforms on September 18, 2017.  (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

Updated on September 21 at 6:56 a.m. ET

After decades of fraught attempts at reforming France’s sacrosanct labor code, French President Emmanuel Macron will use a presidential decree Friday to push through a series of business-friendly reforms. The aim is to give greater leeway to employers and to tackle the country’s near double-digit unemployment rate. It’s an ambitious plan for a new leader like Macron, and one that has already prompted street protests by labor unions opposed to it. But the 39-year-old leader, armed with a parliamentary majority, remains undeterred.

“I was very clear during my campaign about the reforms,” Macron told CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour Tuesday. “I explained those reforms, I presented those reforms during weeks and weeks, and I was elected on those reforms. I do believe in democracy, and democracy is not on the street. They voted.”

The reforms, which Macron described as a “Copernican revolution,” mark a significant overhaul of the country’s century-old labor code, Le Code du Travail. First developed in the early 20th century during a period of rapid industrial growth, French labor laws span nine books and thousands of pages, detailing everything from the rules around hiring and firing employees, to those that govern collective bargaining. Despite attempts by previous governments to reform the code, France’s powerful unions have long thwarted any serious changes. Macron learned this firsthand during his brief tenure as economy minister under former Socialist President François Hollande, whose attempt at passing similar reforms sparked nationwide protests that ultimately resulted in the final versions being watered down.

But this time is different. Though Macron’s reforms, like those of his predecessors, were met with large-scale protests, attendance was markedly lower than in past years. Compared to the protests Hollande’s government faced in 2016, in which approximately 400,000 people took to the streets, last week’s protest staged by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), France’s second-largest union, drew a crowd of only 220,000 (CGT claimed 400,000). The dip in attendance could be attributed in part to the decision by French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) and Force Ouvrière, two of the country’s largest unions, to not formally participate in the strike.

But Dr. David Lees, a researcher of French politics at Warwick University, told me there’s more to it than that. “One of the issues for low engagement at demonstrations typically has been that union membership in France is much lower than comparable Western European countries like the U.K.,” he said. “The unions don’t have the same kind of grip over the workers like they used to in France.”

Compared to its neighbors, France’s labor union membership is among Europe’s weakest. Only 8 percent of France’s employees are union members, down from 20 percent in 1960. That 8 percent, in turn, is divided into several competing national unions, led by the three most-popular: the CDFT, the CGT, and Force Ouvrière. Though the unions cater to different sectors (CGT is popular among rail and energy workers, whereas many of CFDT’s members are lorry and van delivery employees) and political persuasions (CGT was linked to the French Communist Party, whereas Force Ouvrière’s founders denounced it), together they wield a considerable amount of power over the employment and pay conditions of French workers—both union and non-union members alike.

Macron’s labor reforms would change that influence. Under current law, labor unions lead sector-wide collective bargaining negotiations between workers and employees. The proposed reforms, however, would allow workers and employees within individual firms to negotiate the agreements themselves. “Union collective bargaining covers over 95 percent of the labor force,” Dr. Alison Johnston, an associate professor of political science specializing in labor markets and collective bargaining politics at Oregon State University, told me. “If small businesses are free to negotiate contracts with their employees individually, this will cut out the influence of the unions on their employment contracts.”

But that isn’t the only controversial change these reforms would bring. Macron’s proposal would also establish a set limit to the amount of damages employers would have to pay workers in the event of wrongful termination—a change many critics say will allow employers to more easily fire people. “If you ask people what they know about the Macron reform, they will not talk about the labor union—they will talk about the limitation of damages,” David Jonin, a partner specializing in employment and social protection law at Paris-based law firm Gide, told me. “For the people in the streets, this measure is the measure.”

Fortunately for Macron, his ability to adopt these reforms doesn’t hinge on public approval. The government has opted to push through the measures using a presidential decree, and though the new rules will eventually require parliamentary approval before they can become law, Macron’s overwhelming majority ensures he’ll get the institutional support he needs. “At the very beginning of your mandate, you have political capital—you have to use it,” Macron told Amanpour. “I don’t mind to be very high in terms of popularity, and so on. My country has to be reformed. I have 10 percent unemployment rate, I have almost 25 percent of my young people being unemployed. It’s useless to have political capital and stay in such a situation.”

Just because Macron may not need public support now doesn’t mean he won’t come to rely on it later. Though currently buoyed by a sound parliamentary majority and a weak and fragmented political opposition, the young leader could run into trouble if his reforms fail to give the French economy the kickstart they’re expected to—especially once the time for reelection comes around.

“The biggest asset Macron has right now is time,” Johnston said. “He is at the start of a long five-year presidential term, so if he can push these labor market reforms through quickly and if they manage to make a dent in France’s unemployment rate … he could ride out current opposition now and capitalize on potential beneficial effects later.”

And if they don’t?

“Macron has largely proven unwilling to negotiate, and he is burning goodwill with unions in the process,” Johnston said. “This may come back to haunt him four years from now.”