PARIS – They warned there would tens of thousands, but in the end it was hundreds of thousands: the number of people demonstrating in Paris on Wednesday against the expected passage of labor laws allowing more flexible working hours. The most cautious estimate, that of the police, was 223,000 – 10 times what the government expected, and even a lot more than the highest expectations of the unions themselves.
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Either way, this is bad news for French President Emmanuel Macron. He understands, as does everyone in France, that he will be judged largely on his ability to pass economic reforms, and this week that ability seemed far from certain. The days when his opponents viewed him as a teflon president and the media called him “Jupiter” seem far distant.
What seems much closer are the dates of the next demonstrations. On Thursday railway workers are expected to protest, followed the next day by supporters of the leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Surprised by its success, the street is bubbling over and girding to do the impossible: Block Jupiter.
The government’s complacency is understandable. The bill on flexible work hours is a sure thing because it’s based on presidential orders, so one might not expect a protest now.
Under such orders, no rare thing in the Fifth Republic, the president asks the National Assembly to grant him the ability, for eight months, to pass economic laws with a simple majority, while skipping over debate in parliamentary committees. In return, the president lets parliament discuss the law for a year after it has passed, which can get it defeated retroactively.
Lazy days of late summer
The government expected the big battle to come in the spring after the eight months elapsed. But the protesters weren’t really coming out against the bill but against Macron, his alleged arrogance and the possibility he’s out of touch with the people.
As if to strengthen this suspicion, Macron was outside France on the day of the protests. He had gone to the Caribbean to offer his support for the French colonies hit by the recent hurricanes. Four days earlier, Macron told the weekly Le Point that he wasn’t getting excited about “a few lazy people” protesting his labor reforms. This may have been what pushed those hundreds of thousands out onto the street, espousing the slogan: “Macron, the lazy people are coming down into the streets.”
The magic number in such battles is 1 million, the French equivalent to the Israeli 400,000. Every time 1 million people come out onto the streets, the bill they’re protesting is blocked by both houses of parliament and sometimes isn’t even submitted. Even though this could be the fate of the government’s upcoming forays, certainly those concerning public-sector employees, no one expected it to happen so soon.
Also, Macron seems to have dissolved the united front of the unions, two of which – including the one most linked to public-sector workers – have called on their members not to join the protests. The fact that they didn’t listen to their union leaders only proves how shaky Macron’s position is.
The importance of counting the protester numbers highlights something the entire world knows, and something especially important in France: There’s no reliable method to count the number of participants at such an event.
The police, who aren’t obligated to do so, release figures based on counting people, individually, in samples based on geographic locations. The unions release figures based on participants’ declarations at their jobs – and today they also use "intentions to attend" posted on Facebook.
Independent assessments, including those from unquestionably left-wing media outlets, have largely confirmed the police’s numbers. According to the unions, the number of protesters in Paris on Wednesday reached 500,000.
But there is complete agreement about a different number, the one that led to the current confrontation in the first place: For 20 years unemployment in France has had topped 3.5 million. In 1974, when 100,000 was crossed, President Georges Pompidou said: “If France reaches half a million unemployed, another revolution will break out.”
Macron claims that a fundamental change is needed to convince employers to recruit workers. The unions agree but say the jobs Macron is talking about aren’t jobs at all, only temporary work at paltry wages – the same thing they say has happened in neighboring Germany.
Justice for the rich
Macron’s first bills up for passage don’t really concern making working hours more flexible, as the government has stated, but will reduce the cost of previous governments’ attempts to fight unemployment. For example, aid to employers is shockingly expensive and hasn’t reduced joblessness in the least.
But Macron’s government is signaling that it plans to change social benefits too. For example, the new bills set a ceiling for severance pay imposed by the labor courts, a notorious barrier to employment. Also, the rules for collecting unemployment benefits are expected to be made much stricter later; an unemployed person who twice refuses to accept a job will no longer get them, as opposed to three times today.
But even this step, seemingly simple and logical, conceals a forest of key issues. One example is how the unemployed are signed up by job category when they first come to an employment office; this has major implications on the refusal question. Studies have shown that poorer workers, foreigners and the uneducated don’t understand the importance of the way their professions are categorized when signing up for unemployment benefits; they often agree to a description much broader than necessary.
For example, it’s possible to insist on being listed as a “foreign correspondent for an Israeli newspaper in Paris,” not simply “journalist.” It’s also possible to be listed under the category “media,” and an unemployed person will then be offered work in telemarketing.
French justice today – and perhaps always in the past – works for those close to the decision-makers, not for the workers who need it the most. Macron says he wants to change this, at least 250,000 people came out to say they don’t believe him, and the rest are still sitting on the fence.