Macron's labor pains: French unions putting his reforms to the test

Macron's labor pains: French unions putting his reforms to the test
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Rail workers, rubbish collectors, students, teachers, nurses and air traffic controllers all took to the streets at the end of March, not to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 protests that rocked France, but to demonstrate against the latest round of labor reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government.

Public-sector strikes in France are as much about fighting for better labor rights as they are part of the nation’s cultural heritage. No French president since the creation of the Fifth Republic in the late 1950s has been immune from mass protest.

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Charles de Gaulle, who initially fled into neighbouring Germany at the height of the 1968 protests, initiated more liberally progressive policies after the snap general election he was forced to call in June 1968.

 

Students, for example, had demanded more political and philosophical freedom. Slogans like, "Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers," echoed throughout the streets of France. 

In 1995, at the beginning of Jacques Chirac’s presidency, national strikes, on a scale not seen since 1968, paralyzed the country in response to a series of planned reforms introduced by his prime minister, Alan Juppé, to cut welfare payments and to change the retirement age for rail workers.

Over 20 years later, another newly elected president with an ambitious reform agenda is facing a similar industrial backlash. 

Last September, in a rather unusual move, Macron signed a number of executive orders designed to make significant changes to France’s complex labor laws. By using his executive privilege, he was able to enact the new rules immediately without the necessity to go through parliament (although for the rules to become law, they must be voted on in the National Assembly where Macron has a majority).

These new rules would make it easier for employers to hire and fire and cap payouts in cases of unfair dismissal. The aim is to make the private sector more competitive and go some way to tackling the country’s 9-percent unemployment rate.

At the time, there was limited public protest at the rule changes and the government continued with its ambitious reform agenda, a central element of Macron’s plans to modernize the French economy.

Yet, the current round of mass strikes is a direct challenge to this modernization drive. Leading the strike are workers at SNCF, the state-owned company that operates France’s railway system, although other public sector unions are also planning strikes.

Air France staff began their first of 7 days of industrial action throughout April over a demand for a 6-percent wage increase. Over 30 percent of the airline’s flights and thousands of passengers, will be affected. The French government owns just over 17 percent of the company.

Through the French railway system is generally seen as a model of efficiency, the company’s $57-billion debt and generous employment conditions are highly problematic and reflective of a wider culture of excess in the French public sector.

Currently, rail workers have "for life" contracts, immediate family members receive free rail travel, and rail drivers can retire at 50 (rising to 52 by 2024). The proposed reforms will mean new employees will not receive the same benefits and those who currently do, will be allowed to keep them. Hardly a radical reform.

However, the union representing SNCF workers believe the government’s efforts to tackle the debt burden and employment rights are only the first steps towards a British-style privatization drive similar to the one Margaret Thatcher pushed through during the 1980s when most state companies like the national rail were auctioned off.

In protest, train staff have begun three months of industrial action, promising to strike two out of every five days, thereby guaranteeing to inflict significant disruption to the country’s public transport system.

The more militant union members clearly hope continuous transport disruptions into the summer months will force the government to weaken or abandon its reform crusade. 

So far, Macron has stayed above the fray, leaving the tawdry business of union negotiations to his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, who has made it clear that the status quo is no longer tenable.

Unlike the last big wave of industrial action in 1995, when the government made an embarrassing U-turn, Macron seems determined to press ahead. The latest opinion poll indicates that there is broad support for his reform agenda.

To back down now would undermine his entire campaign platform of reducing public-sector expenditure, which currently absorbs a staggering 56 percent of the country’s GDP.

To succeed and weaken the country’s strike culture, Macron and his ministers need to display, in equal measure, Thatcher-like determination and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' Booker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump MORE-like rhetorical flourish. The alternative is Macron’s own version of 1968 and a summer of industrial discontent. 

Michael J. Geary, Ph.D., is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and an associate professor of modern European history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.