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Why strikes and poor polling aren't derailing Macron's reform plans

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Despite his showy numbers in French presidential elections earlier this year, Emmanuel Macron's actual support has always been fairly limited. But his campaign promises were clear, and he is moving quickly to follow through on them.

France's President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a press conference as part of his visit to the French Caribbean island of St. Martin after hurricane Irma on Sept. 12.
Christophe Ena/Reuters
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Remy Pichon joined tens of thousands on the streets of France this week to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s labor reform. They opened the first front in a battle whose outcome could reshape the French economy, or keep things largely as they already are.

Mr. Pichon’s positioning is clear. “We are here to protect a century of workers’ rights that we have earned,” says the laboratory technician, who missed a day of pay to march down the tree-lined boulevards of Paris.

But if Pichon's rhetoric, and the sea of placards, pins, and posters, is a familiar scene, even the most fervent protesters aren’t sure if the fight will follow the conventional playbook.

The strikes that started Tuesday – and will continue later this month to oppose Mr. Macron’s attempt to make hiring and firing more flexible, a goal that’s eluded his predecessors – were smaller, and narrower in scope, than previous protests. And even as Macron’s popularity has waned – and perhaps because of it – he appears to be looking beyond public opinion to prove that he’s the one who can finally liberalize France’s economy.

“I really think Emmanuel Macron is going ‘Thatcher-style’ on this,” says Thomas Guénolé, a professor of politics at Sciences Po in Paris. “That is why I think the social movement and political movement will defeat him only if they go for a long, tough mobilization.”

Demonstrators in Paris hold placards with portraits of French President Emmanuel Macron and the slogan "Clear out" during a national strike and protest against the government's labor reforms on Sept.12.
Charles Platiau/Reuters
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Dr. Guénolé says all eyes need to stay focused on the street. “Will it or will it not be on fire? That’s the only question,” he says.

So far it is not. The front page of Wednesday’s Le Parisien read, “First round, Macron.”

Fulfilling promises

Pierre Gattaz, head of France’s small and medium-sized business federation, told foreign journalists this summer that he expected strikes to be smaller because Macron is carrying out campaign promises made during presidential and subsequent legislative elections, where his party won a large majority.

In short, Macron promised to move fast on labor reform to spur investment and reduce unemployment that has stood above 9 percent for nearly a decade. “He has been elected on a program that he explained for weeks and months,” Mr. Gattaz says, “so he has the legitimacy of the election.”

Perhaps more crucially, he also negotiated for weeks with unions over the summer to come up with proposals that ultimately kept two of the three biggest unions off the street Tuesday and the labor movement divided. “It puts the government in a better position,” says Philippe Frémeaux a, columnist at Economic Alternatives news magazine.

The CGT, the hard-line union at the center of French resistance to labor reform, said that 60,000 marched in Paris – compared to 100,000 who came out in the spring of 2016 to protest labor reform under François Hollande.

Derek Doyle, an electrician and member of the largest union, CFDT, which didn’t formally join the strikes Tuesday, says he came to protest anyway because he is worried about Macron’s determination. “It is harder with Macron, [his administration] wants to go fast,” he says.

Macron’s approval rating slipped to about 40 percent over the summer, and he will be under pressure to show that he can effect change despite his fragile victory.

Although he won the most votes in the first round of elections in April, it represented only 24 percent of the electorate. Many of his second-round supporters chose him because they feared a win by National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

Macron doesn’t seem deterred. He provoked controversy ahead of the protests by saying he wouldn’t cede ground to “slackers.” He later stood by his words, saying he was referring to those who continuously stand in the way of reform, but it heightened the sense that he is aloof and arrogant.

Potential for backlash

Macron is expected to push through the reform by decree later this month, while two more protests are planned. On Wednesday, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on TV that he was “listening” and “paying attention” to the street. But, he added, “the reform that we are putting in place was announced by the president at the time of his election.”

The government of Macron, who campaigned as a candidate neither on the “right” nor “left,” says the intention is not to blaze a liberal path like Ms. Thatcher did in Britain. He campaigned to protect the vulnerable while unleashing the country’s economic potential.

Yet while that drew him support from the right and left, he faces challenges keeping both happy. His political party comprises members across the political spectrum. “His majority in the National Assembly is made up of very different people,” says Mr. Frémeaux. “If there is too much dissent in the country about what he does, or promises, there may be some division within his majority.”

Pichon, the protester, dismisses the “centrist” agenda on offer. “He’s on the side of the bosses.”

“Why is it not possible to maintain our rights when we had them after World War II when the country was in ruins?” he asks. “There are no wars, no epidemics, and the rich have never been richer. If the people don’t resist, it’ll never stop.”

He admits this week has so far not been a “social explosion,” but says he believes it will take time to foment. “It’s a battle of wills,” he says.

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