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Macron government faces first street protests over labour reform

media French President Emmanuel Macron in Romania Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron's government faces a crucial test on Tuesday with the first day of strikes and demonstrations against its policies. But trade unions are divided over its plans to make more changes to French labour law.

Strike action is planned at more than 4,000 workplaces with demonstrations in at least 180 towns and cities, notably Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse and Lyon, according to the CGT union federation, which first issued the call to protest.

Public transport, the energy sector and education will all face disruption, with another militant union grouping, Sud backing the call to strike and demonstrate, along with students' and teachers' unions .

The youth wings of France's left-wing parties has joined radical students' unions in backing the protests and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon declared earlier in the month that he would join the demonstrations, although his France Unbowed movement has organised its own day of protest on 23 September.

The Socialist Party, whose own labour reform sparked protests against the previous government, is divided, some MPs and party leaders saying they would join the protests with others refusing to do so.

Reform by decree

Among the changes that have angered opponents are the replacement of industry-wide bargaining by company-level negotiations on questions such as working hours, loosening of restrictions on declaring redundancies and a cap on redundancy payments, and the authorisation of negotiations between small businesses and employees without trade union intervention.

The government has also used ordonnances, a form of decree, to fast-track the measures through parliament, restricting debate to the great disgust of the left-wing opposition, especially France Unbowed.

Unions divided

But Macron and Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud have succeeded in deepening the divisions in France's union movement.

Not only has the CFDT federation refused to back the protests, as it did under the previous government, but also the more militant Force Ouvrière (FO) has dropped out of the opposition, saying it was satisfied with the consultation process that took place over the summer.

According to critics, that decision was influenced by the appointment of one of its full-time officials, Stéphane Lardy, to a job in Pénicaud's office, where he will work alongside Antoine Foucher, recruited from the bosses' union Medef.

Not all FO members are toeing the national line, however, and several branches at national and local level have said they will demonstrate on Tuesday.

"Slackers, cynics and extremists"

Macron stirred up further controversy on Friday when he used the occasion of a visit to Greece to declare that he would not give in to "slackers, cynics and the extremes" and would press on with his reform programme, with public-spending cuts, changes to unemployment benefit and pension reform also in the pipeline.

Presidential advisers at first seemed unconcerned about the ambiguity about who Macron was talking about but government spokesman Christophe Castaner later specified that it was "those people who did not have the courage to carry out the necessary reform", in other words Macron's predecessors of both right and left.

Socialist parliamentary leader Olivier Faure was not ready to let the matter drop on Monday.

"Whoever he was talking about, there was clearly an element of contempt and that is not new for Emmanuel Macron," he commented. "Let's remember, he sometimes has difficulty concealing his frustration and his contempt for part of the population."

CGT leader Philippe Martinez said he was "scandalised" by the remark, while Mélenchon called it a "volley of abuse against the French people".

On a visit to Toulouse on Monday afternoon Macron was unrepentant.

He meant "all those who think that we should not change in Europe and in France", he said.

The president has, indeed, acquired a reputation for a certain haughtiness and has several times expressed impatience while on trips abroad, remarking that "the French detest reforms" while on a visit to Romania last month.

An opinion poll published Monday showed 57 percent supporting Tuesday's day of protest, a majority but lower thatn the 65 percent who backed the first demonstrations against the previous government's labour reform.

On Monday evening Macron was to head for the hurricane-struck French Caribbean, which should mean that photos of the president consoling storm victims will compete with pictures of demonstrators in the media on Tuesday.

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