Dr David Lees, expert in French culture and politics from the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, comments on the protests in France against President Macron's labour law reforms.
"Despite thousands joining protests across France to oppose President Macron’s economic reforms, the division amongst unions and lack of political opposition mean protests are in vain.
"President Emmanuel Macron came to power in June with a promise to shake up France’s labour laws and to make the country competitive on the world stage. Having put forward reforms to make it easier for business to hire and fire, reduce bureaucracy and slim down the French State, Macron is facing the same kind of protests experienced by his predecessors, most recently François Hollande. Macron was responsible for one of the more unpopular measures under Hollande, the so-called ‘Macron law’, which laid the foundations for the current wave of reforms. Yet other former Presidents, like Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, also faced protest.
"What is different with Macron is the wider political context. Chirac, forced to co-habit with a left-wing government, repeatedly backed down after mass strikes across many different industrial sectors. Like Macron, Chirac was elected in 2002 (for his second term) having beaten a candidate from the extreme-right. In 2002, this was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Macron’s opponent, Marine. Unlike Macron, though, Chirac did little in his second term to upset the status-quo, seemingly realising that much of the overwhelming support that came his way was as much a vote against Le Pen than a vote for his economic policies.
"Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen was smaller than that of Chirac over Jean-Marie, but nonetheless convincing and has damaged the brand of the Front National. In his victory, Macron also essentially tore up the main left-wing party, the Socialist Party, while shattering the centre-right Les Républicains. The huge success of Macron’s new party, La République en Marche, over its left- and right-wing rivals means that Macron has virtually no political opposition. This places him in a much better position than Chirac (who was viewed as the best of a bad bunch rather than a genuine victor in 2002) and Nicolas Sarkozy, who faced political opposition and then the economic context of the 2008 crash in his attempts to introduce meaningful economic reform.
"Macron is also helped by the continual decline of the trades unions in France. Hugely divided ideologically, the main unions rarely demonstrate real cooperation and lack the same profession-specific focus of their UK equivalents. As a result, union membership is lower in France than in comparable western European democracies. Workers may choose to strike without being a member of a union, but they do not have sustained or strategic leadership. Instead, Macron could well exploit the differences of opinion amongst workers and unions to push through his reforms in a National Assembly in which he enjoys a huge majority. The real challenge for Macron, whose first months in charge have seen rather mixed success, not least because of his tendency to claim to be above petty party politics, will come later, in local, European and regional elections. Unlike his apparent model, Charles de Gaulle, Macron is not presiding over a France in political turmoil; he would do well to engage more in the day-to-day running of the country than claim to be—rather gratingly for the protesting workers—above such concerns."
22 September 2017
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