'President of the Rich' Macron Still Pushes Labor Reform Despite Mass Protests

© REUTERS / Christian Hartmann/File PhotoFrench President Emmanuel Macron stands on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 16, 2017
French President Emmanuel Macron stands on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 16, 2017 - Sputnik International
PARIS (Sputnik) - After largely winning the presidential election to his right-wing rival Marine Le Pen in May, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron became the youngest president of the French Fifth Republic.

Former economic minister under ex-President Francois Hollande, former banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque, in April 2016 Macron left the government to form his own political party, called En marche (later, La Republique en marche, "Republic Onward"), which claimed to put an end to French traditional right-left political cleavage. With no established political party and having never held an elected office, Macron became president one year after.

Unlikely Winner and Record High Abstention

Macron was not seen as a likely winner of the presidential race, with former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon leading the polls. But a media scoop accusing Fillon of fraudulently employing his wife cost him the presidential seat. Other potential candidates stepped out of the presidential race early, leaving Macron with high chances to enter the Elysee Palace. Nicolas Sarkozy dropped out after the defeat in the primaries, so did Manuel Valls, who was outstripped by Benoit Hamon in the primaries of the socialist party.

In the second round of the election Macron faced the right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, who advocated protecting the French national interests and reducing EU influence over national policies, the opposite of what European-oriented globalist Macron was standing for. The TV debates between the two candidates, considered unsuccessful for Marine Le Pen, increased the gap between the two rivals, finally getting Macron 65.82 percent of the votes in the runoff.

© Sputnik / Irina KalashnikovaEn Mache! leader Emmanuel Macron during a speech outside Louvre after winning French presidential election
En Mache! leader Emmanuel Macron during a speech outside Louvre after winning French presidential election - Sputnik International
En Mache! leader Emmanuel Macron during a speech outside Louvre after winning French presidential election

His victory, however, was marked by an unprecedented level of abstention, with one in four voters refraining from casting their ballots. The "vote for Macron" has largely become a "vote against Marine Le Pen" rather than a vote to support the former banker, coming from his newly concocted political party and not any reputed political family the French are familiar with.

The abstention rate reached 26 percent and the runoff saw a significant increase in the so-called white votes, the ballots left empty. This put the credibility of the new president under question, as in order to have real power and be able to implement his reforms he needed the majority in the National Assembly, the upper house of the French parliament.

In June’s parliamentary election LREM party gained a large majority, allowing Macron to put in place measures which proved to be rather unpopular with the French citizens and provoked a range of mass protests in autumn, and saw Macron’s approval ratings drop rapidly.

Labor Law Reform Amid Protests

The major reform, which is seen by the labor unions as depriving workers of their rights and weakening the role of their representatives, in Macron’s program was changing the French labor code. The reform was aimed at liberalizing the labor market, tackling high unemployment and putting French legislation in line with the European one, notably German. It replaced the existing agreements of industries (accord of the branches) with the agreement of enterprises, meaning that every employer could now negotiate the salaries and the working hours with its employees, without the need to look back at the industry’s regulations.

The measures were introduced in the summer in the form of a government decree, in order to speed up the legislative process, with both chambers of parliament ratifying it in September, and sparked a range of protests in France. French biggest syndicates, such as CGT, called for repeated protests in autumn to oppose the new legislation. Four nation-wide manifestations were called by the labor unions; the first one, on September 12, saw some 223,000 people on the streets, according to the French Interior Ministry. CGT claimed that up to 400,000 protesters took part in the manifestations across France.

READ MORE: France Awaits Economic Reforms in Labor Market From Macron

The demonstration a week after, on September 21, counted almost twice less participants (132,000 according to the French Interior Ministry). People’s mobilization faded gradually, with only some 80,000 people protesting in France in the last November 16 manifestation. Experts believe that such a weak protest movement signifies a symbolic victory for Emmanuel Macron, who claims this was "the most important reform, which has been avoided in France for twenty years".

"The most important thing is the labor law, without doubt. It was a test whether he would be able to pass this labor law, or have people on the streets. Here he clearly gained a point. It is an incontestable victory, even given the disagreement of certain syndicates, he was able to pass it. Contrary to Manuel Valls and the previous government, there were strong consultations with labor unions, which allowed passing it without enormous street protests. There were other laws, like regulations for the National Assembly, for example. It’s important, now the deputies have to declare their salaries etc. But the real test was the labor law," Daniel Boy, a senior researcher at the Sciences Po research center (CEVIPOF), told Sputnik.

President of the Rich

Macron’s highbrow profile (he graduated from one of the French most prestigious administrative universities ENA) got him largely criticized for misunderstanding the needs of the French popular class, and his proximity to the world's richest bankers raised concerns that his politics may benefit the wealthiest social groups.

French President Emmanuel Macron walks back to his office after a meeting with guests at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 31, 2017 - Sputnik International
Poll Finds That Half of France Thinks Macron's Economic Policies Favor the Rich
On August 30, the French government announced the transformation of the French infamous solidarity tax on wealth (ISF), replacing it with the solidarity tax on real estate – a measure which will allow the wealthy part of the French society to save a lot of money. At the same time the cuts in housing allocation (APL) by 5 euros ($6) per month left many outraged.

The former president, Francois Hollande, who was behind the significant increase of the tax on wealth amid the 2008 crisis, criticized the "lower tax regime for the rich and higher one for the more modest or middle classes," speaking at the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul in October.

"Tax policy must favor investment not rent. I am not against success, but it must not be of those who get richer while they sleep. Those who work must see the fruits of their labor and I don't see why one should be generous to taxpayers who know how to invest their money very opportunistically," Hollande said, criticizing the politics of his former minister.

Macron himself has repeatedly rejected such accusations, saying that the country’s prosperity is equally based on that of successful businessmen. "For our society to get better, we need people who succeed. We shouldn't be jealous of them, we should say: ‘fantastic’," Macron said in his televised interview on October 15.

Experts, however, tend to see this as an alarming sign.

"I believe that in politics symbols are of great impact. And the symbolic measures that were taken, like the decrease of housing allocation by 5 euros which is nothing on the economic level, but symbolically it’s a lot. Transformation of solidarity tax on wealth (ISF) showed clearly that whom he wants to protect is the rich. The rich will become richer. Wealthy people will save a lot, which is not the case for those getting an average or low salary, who will have to experience the increase in gas and electricity prices, road tariffs etc. All this does not go in line with politics of equality," Alain Policar, a professor at the University of Limoges and a researcher as CEVIPOF, told Sputnik.

Some other social reforms of Macron include the planned rise in the general social contribution tax (CSG) that aims to offset the budget deficit, abandoning unemployment insurance and reducing subsidized employment contracts.

Budget Cuts

Macron has announced numerous budget cuts, calling for all the ministries to reduce their spending in order to curb the 2018 budget deficit.

The cuts in military spending resulted in a scandal around the head of the French armed forces Pierre De Villiers, who chose to resign after having spoken up against the measures and being talked down by Macron. Overall, the government plans to save 4.5 billion euros ($5.3 billion) eating up on the already agreed budgets: 850 millions are asked from the Defense Ministry, 500 million in cuts were announced for the Interior Ministry without reducing the number of police personnel, over 300 million is being taken away from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, the Foreign Ministry has to save 282 million and the budget for NGOs and public development will be slashed by 140 million.

Budget cuts affecting French environmental non-governmental organizations faced disapproval of many of them. NGOs said it contradicted Macron's aspirations to lead the global fight with climate change and Oxfam France charity called them "scandalous".

Lift of the 2-Year State of Emergency and Anti-Terror Bill

Since the deadly terror attacks of November 2015, which took 130 lives, France has been living under a state of emergency. The military personnel have been increased, with special operation Sentinelle soldiers surveying transport hubs and public venues. Emmanuel Macron pledged to lift the two-year state of emergency, inscribing some of its elements in common right instead.

"We must exit the state of emergency. It was efficient in the first weeks, first months after the terror attacks … But it cannot be prolonged indefinitely. Our challenge is to efficiently protect the French people against the permanent terror threat in the framework of the common right. The measures of this law are meant to be of limited amount and are targeted, proportional and linked exclusively to the purposes of prevention and fight against terrorism," Macron said in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on November 1, when the state of emergency in France was lifted.

The anti-terror legislation is one of the bills initiated by Macron in the wake of repeated terror attacks in France. The bill incorporates some elements of the state of emergency, which has been prolonged six times since the terror attacks of 2015. It has, however, faced criticism in the country over outlining possibilities for compromising citizens' liberties.

READ MORE: Terror Attacks Considered Most Notable 2017 Events by Over 50% in France — Poll

Namely, the legislation stipulates the strengthening of administrative authority, which will simplify the issuance of search warrants, and will also allow temporary closures of places of religious worship where propaganda of hatred and violence is conducted. The reform was seen as controversial by several human rights organizations, which claimed it violated human rights, giving more powers to the police, enabling extensive searches, facilitating detention and questioning procedures.

However, the bill did not face major popular opposition, which, as CEVIPOF researcher Daniel Boy believes, is due to the fact that the terrorist threat is more present as ever and security stays one of the major concerns for the French.

"The anti-terror bill apparently went well. We saw some protests but I find them rather modest, even the ones staged by the left parties. It’s true that this law is criticized by some as violating personal freedoms, but it was passed rather easily. The French are usually demanding as far as security is concerned, they are not too touchy about the risks of limiting individual liberties, because security is really something crucial," Boy said.

Advocacy For Climate

Macron has made ambitious plans to tackle climate change since becoming president, pledging unwavering support for the Paris deal and calling a new international climate summit in December and proposing to increase the EU carbon emissions price floor sixfold. The One Planet Summit was held in Paris on December 12, and was co-organized by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The event attracted participants from 127 counties. Aimed to unlock the financing from the private sector, the summit has welcomed prominent businessmen and representatives of major corporations. Emmanuel Macron warned that the world was "losing the battle" against climate change and that international actors "were not moving fast enough" to meet the goals of the Paris climate deal. Despite the call of the French president for concrete solutions instead of declarations, experts judged the commitments made by governments, and France in particular, as weak and insufficient.

READ MORE: Parisians Protest Against Macron's Ecology Policies Amid Int'l Climate Summit

Emmanuel Macron has also come up with the initiative to bring US climate scientists to continue their work in France after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris accord on combating climate change in early June. The French leader launched a website called "Make Our Planet Great Again" offering four-year grants to US researchers, teachers and students to continue their work in France. Macron's policies have, however, been criticized by French NGOs facing financial cuts amid the drive to reduce France's budget deficit.

"What we denounce is the divergence between the big discourse of Emmanuel Macron, which plays a leader on the international scene in the questions of climate, and the reality of the budget cuts that have been announced," Oxfam's Clara Jamart said, citing the "impossible decrease in financing" which the NGOs in France are currently facing.

Pension and Education Reforms Can Result in Mass Protests in 2018

After a significant drop in approval ratings in September, Emmanuel Macron is regaining popularity, which, according to an IFOP survey published on December 17, has grown by 10% over the past two months. Over half of French citizens endorse Macron's activity as the country's leader in December.

READ MORE: Protest Against Macron's Policies Takes Place in Paris (PHOTO, VIDEO)

But experts believe that despite the strategy of implementing the most controversial reforms in the beginning of his presidential term, and leaving the voters time to rebound before the 2022 presidential election, Macron’s domestic policy in 2018 will be marked by highly unpopular pension and education reforms. The pension reform is an initiative meant to bring 37 different pensions systems into one, with employees of private and public sectors treated equally.

"The planned pension reform is huge. Currently pensions differ for the officials, for every category – we have almost 30 different pension categories and he said during his campaign he wanted to pass to a unique system. Here he will face a lot of obstacles and a very high risk of manifestations," Daniel Boy said.

Under the education reform, the new selection process will allow universities to select students and "reorient" those less suitable for the program to other establishments.

"Second thing [after pension reform] that risks fueling a massive social movement is university selection. It’s a taboo in France," Alain Policar explained. adding that it is uncertain how far the reforms will go.

The expert stressed that such pre-selection will lead to the emergence of "universities of excellence" like in the United States, and diplomas  will no longer have the same value and will be based on the place where they were obtained.

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