PARIS — Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of the French capital Saturday, condemning the new labor laws of President Emmanuel Macron.
The demonstrators gathered at the behest of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical leftist who has emerged as the principal opposition figure to France’s centrist president, a former investment banker. Two and a quarter centuries after the French Revolution, Mélenchon’s anti-capitalist supporters first targeted Paris’s symbolic Place de la Bastille, marching against a leader they, too, consider a king.
In a wide-ranging speech, the fiery Mélenchon, 66, attacked Macron and the “liberal chaos” he believes the president’s Anglo-American-style economic retooling will bring. But most of all, Mélenchon vowed “resistance” to the new French president and railed against the process by which Macron passed his reforms, nominally devised to lower an intractably high unemployment rate and stimulate economic growth.
“We were not able to discuss a single line, a single page, of the ordinances!” he proclaimed, before an applauding crowd of thousands. In reality, the Elysee Palace engaged in months of dialogue with prominent French union leaders, several of whom, in exchange for certain concessions, have since refused to protest the new laws.
Saturday’s march came in direct response to Macron officially signing five major labor decrees into law Friday, a move the young president immediately heralded as an “unprecedented reform of the labor market” and a moment that broke with decades of French regulatory tradition.
In a country still home to one of the world’s most highly regulated labor markets, these changes are likely to create a long-unimaginable shift in favor of corporations and small businesses.
Mélenchon, in many ways the heir to France’s long-dormant communist political tradition, is not amused.
“Capitalism is the first enemy of democracy,” he declared in his remarks. In his eyes, there is much to dislike in Macron’s unapologetic embrace of capitalism.
Under Macron’s changes, for instance, French companies across the board stand to benefit from the laws’ stated aim of reducing the centralized power of collective bargaining. But much of the true emphasis is on nurturing smaller businesses, with 50 employees or fewer, which will now be able to negotiate contracts directly with employees — and, crucially, without union oversight.
These smaller businesses, the new laws also ensure, will additionally profit from a legislated cap on damages that French courts can demand for wrongful employee terminations. In the past, many French companies have said, these often hefty damages have proved deadly for smaller companies that do not necessarily have excess cash reserves .
Most Mélenchon supporters in the crowd Saturday — many of whom had arrived in the capital in convoys of chartered buses from all over metropolitan France — were appalled at the changes.
One of them, Camille Groux, 23, a building engineer from the north-central French city of Orleans, said he found Macron’s actions tantamount to a “betrayal.”
“What he proposes is extreme,” he said. “His ordinances in fact undermine our democracy by giving the power to the heads of companies instead of us, the people. It’s the beginning of an authoritarian power.”
Anne-Catherine Lhuillier, 35, a French civil servant in the education sector from the Paris suburbs, said she feels vulnerable under the new laws, given that she has seen no raises in the 10 years she has worked in the sector and that increased competition will probably mean increased insecurity.
“People who work need some money to live,” she said. “Just to live.”
When the laws take effect in January, Macron may become the first modern French president to successfully overhaul a labor market that many of his predecessors have tried — and failed — to deregulate.
The difference, political analysts have observed, is that most of those predecessors sprung changes on the French public without prior discussion, whereas labor reform was always a central promise of Macron’s campaign. His actions since his inauguration in May have taken few by surprise, and the protests that have occurred have been less severe than those in April 2016, against similar proposals by François Hollande that were far narrower in scope.
Apart from Saturday’s march, protests in general against Macron’s labor laws appear to be tapering off, with figures declining in recent weeks.
Mélenchon, however, has vowed to continue the fight.
“We must bring forward the strength of our people in battle and in the streets,” he said.