Macron rolls dice with French la­bor law re­forms

Pres­i­dent’s ap­proval rat­ing only 30%

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MAYA VIDON-WHITE

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, 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.

“It’s the end of the em­ploy­ment con­tract,” said Philippe Martinez, sec­re­tary­gen­eral 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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron has been hurt by a fight over cuts to stu­dent stipends, the res­ig­na­tion of France’s top mil­i­tary of­fi­cer over feared bud­get cuts, and per­sonal rev­e­la­tions, in­clud­ing his spend­ing of $31,000 on makeup in his three months.

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