Half a million ‘layabouts, cynics and extremists’ take to the streets to protest Macron’s assault on the labour laws
The first day of mass action against the Macron presidency saw upwards of 400,000 French workers, students, pensioners and concerned citizens take to the streets in defence of the Code du Travail: the historical, labour movement-built body of law protecting rights and protections in the workplace.
The day of action was called by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), in partnership with Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, or SUD) and the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (FSU). Although it went ahead without the leadership-mandated involvement of two other big union groupings, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) and Force Ouvrière (FO), it was backed by much of radical Left, including Lutte Ouvrière, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and – crucially – La France Insoumise (LFI). Students, pensioners and civic organisations, including those involved in housing and the rights of the disabled, participated energetically and with considerable inventive flair.
Figures released by the CGT (always shadowed by lower police and municipal estimates) provide a sense not only of the scale of mobilisations (60,000 in Paris and in Marseilles) but also their reach. A round-up published by Mediapart on September 13 reveals impressive turn-outs not only in big metropolitan centres such as Nantes (15,000), Bordeaux (12,000) and Lyon (10,000) but also in more modestly sized towns: Angouleme (2,500), Brest (4,000) and Mulhouse (1,500).
The mood on the streets saw anger combined with festivity and fun-poking. In Toulouse, where 16,000 protestors took to the streets, Macron’s imperial delusions, along with his ill-judged recent put-down of those opposed to his labour law ‘reforms’, were everywhere the butt of placards, songs and slogans.
It was surely a blunder by ‘Jupiter’, while on a visit to Greece last week, to declare he would yield “ni aux fainéants, ni aux cyniques, ni aux extrêmes” (neither to layabouts, nor to cynics, nor to extremists) in respect of his ‘reform’ agenda. The gift-horse represented by this intemperate portrayal of French working people swiftly set off a twitter storm: “Abrutis, cyniques, fainéants, tous dans la rue les 12 et 23 septembre!” (stupid, cynical, lazy – all in the streets on September 12 and 23!) was how LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted his response on September 8.
A wave of contempt and indignation, reflected in online cartoons and waggish satirical comments, swept across France in the build-up to September 12. New slogans, many of them referencing Macron’s banking background, captured the mood: “Narcisse Macron le roi des fainéants!” (Narcissus Macron, king of the layabouts!) At Toulouse on September 12, marchers chanted “Macron, t’es foutu, les fainéants sont dans la rue!” (Macron, you’re finished – the layabouts are in the streets!)
Those marching at Toulouse were headed by a robust CGT contingent, representing a plethora of local industries and enterprises, including Airbus. The LFI presence was also potent, not simply in terms of numbers (roughly a thousand Insoumis-es participated) but also for its liveliness, organisation and creative zest. There was some cheeky burlesque: Insoumis-es disguised as nurses and white-coated doctors bore the Code du Travail on a stretcher; behind them a cortege of ‘mourners’ followed a coffin marked ‘Code du Travail’ whose pall-bearers wore Macron masks. Another section, further back in the procession, danced and sang, aided by the distribution of song sheets. They moved and performed as an organised bloc, stopping and then moving forward in a manner that showed both organisational capacity and dramatic flair.
How should this first day of action against the Macron presidency be assessed? Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the CGT, has described it as a successful start. While the level of mobilisation (400,000 to 500,000) fell well below figures achieved during the height of the movement against François Hollande’s labour law ‘reform’ (the El Khomri Law of 2016), it is equivalent to the turn-out at the first demonstration of that earlier campaign, on March 9, 2016. Industrial action is response to strike calls, 4,000 in total, appears to have been patchy while causing some disruption, particularly to rail services.
Martinez has called a second day of nationwide action for September 21, the eve of the session of the Council of Ministers to which Macron’s labour law ordinances are to be presented. Two days later, La France Insoumise will rally in Paris, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon at the centre of the action, ready to enthral, inspire and set things alight.
As Alexis Corbière, one of LFI’s combative team of deputies in the National Assembly, put it to an interviewer while marching at Paris on September 12, “il faut que la température sociale monte dans le pays” (socially speaking, it’s essential that things hot up in the country).
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.