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Macron faces first big street protests, a challenge to his labor reforms

A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back to anti-riot police during a protest called by several French unions against the labour law reform, on September 12, 2017 in Nantes, western France. French unions launched a day of strikes and protests today against French President's flagship labour reforms, a key test as he stakes his presidency on overhauling the sluggish economy. More than 180 street protests are planned nationwide against the reforms, which are intended to tackle stubbornly high unemployment by loosening the rules that govern how businesses hire and fire people. / AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCELOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

A demonstrator threw a tear gas canister back to antiriot police in Nantes Tuesday.

PARIS — The first big street protests since France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, took office in May unfolded in cities across the country Tuesday, as union members went on strike to protest government plans to overhaul labor regulations.

Large street demonstrations last year helped pressure Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, to dilute a plan to overhaul the notoriously complex labor code. The latest rallies are a test of Macron’s resolve to revamp the French economy and of his opponents’ ability to mobilize against him.

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But the demonstrations also gave a chance for those angry at the government to express frustrations about other issues, including budget cuts, plans to reform the pension system, and Macron’s own style of governing.

Macron, however, was nowhere near the protests. He arrived in the Caribbean on Tuesday to visit the French islands of St. Martin and St. Barthélemy, after they were hit by Hurricane Irma last week.

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Protests took place in Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, and a dozen other cities, led by unions and left-wing parties who say that worker rights would be watered down by the overhaul of the French labor code, which is known as the Code du Travail.

More than 60,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Paris, according to unions, who called the protests a success. The Paris police prefecture said the figure was closer to 24,000.

Tear gas was fired and rocks were thrown during sporadic clashes between police and small groups of protesters on the fringes of the main march in Paris, but the overall mood was calm. Last year, weeks of protests against similar labor changes were sometimes marred by violence.

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The changes to the labor code would loosen regulations for small companies, make it easier to hire and fire employees, and enable businesses to negotiate certain workplace issues at the company level rather than having to abide by industrywide agreements.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of the left-wing France Unbowed party, said Tuesday that Macron “can and must back down.” France Unbowed is organizing a separate demonstration against the labor overhaul on Sept. 23.

“This isn’t our last stand,” Mélenchon told reporters at a demonstration in the southern city of Marseille, which he represents in the lower house of Parliament. “We are organizing a relentless defense of the labor code.”

But the government is not expected to budge. Macron is enacting the overhaul to the labor rules by decree, and the changes are expected to be implemented this month.

Also, opponents of the new labor rules have been divided in their response. Among the major French unions, only the hard-line General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, called on its members to demonstrate Tuesday.

Victor Mendez, 46, a railway engineer who was been a member of the CGT for the past three years, said during the rally in Paris that he was opposed to Macron creating “disposable workers.”

“It’s hard to get a job, but it has become so easy to get fired,” he said.

Top leadership at the more moderate unions, who were not entirely happy with the changes but welcomed the summerlong talks the government held to explain them, had not called on their members to protest.

Many among the rank-and-file in those unions seemed to have gone anyway, like Patrice Quillet, 52, a chemical industry union representative in the Force Ouvrière, who said “there’s nothing good in this reform.”

The demonstrations Tuesday were called to focus attention on the changes to the labor code, which would directly affect workers in the private sector.

Some groups are joining the rallies to protest against other measures planned by Macron’s government, including budget cuts for civil servants and cuts in housing subsidies for students.

Existing anger against Macron was amplified last week when he said, in a speech in Greece, that those who opposed the changes for France were “slackers” or “cynics.”

Although Macron didn’t specify whom he was targeting — and although he later added that he meant “all of those who for the past 15 years have said we mustn’t move in France and in Europe” — some citizens felt affronted, including Serge Amely, a 50-year-old nurse’s aid who said that he felt the comments were “unworthy of a leader.”

“I’ve been working for the past 32 years, I wake up everyday at 5 a.m., I’m no slacker and my work is difficult,” Amely said during the demonstration in Paris, where dozens held signs that read “Slackers of all countries, unite!” or chanted “Macron, president of the bosses!”

Alain Cure, a 66-year-old elementary-school principal in Paris and a union member, said it was “important to show that we, as union workers, are united.”

Cure, who was waiting for a march to start on the Place de la Bastille in Paris, said that, although the labor changes would not affect him, it was important to send a message before other planned changes.

“If Macron passes the reforms, then he will have more powers to pass further reforms,” Cure said.

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