Paris (CNSNews.com) – French President Emmanuel Macron, already languishing in the polls, has come under fire from some quarters for visiting hurricane-battered French territories in the Caribbean rather than deal with mass demonstrations at home against proposed labor reforms.
This week major cities, especially Paris and Marseille, saw thousands of people rally in street protests under union banners, chanting anti-Macron slogans.
Rather than confront the challenge, Macron flew to the Caribbean to demonstrate support for French citizens in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma.
He took tons of food and medicine to distribute to the islands’ inhabitants, many of whom have lost their homes and are sleeping outdoors.
Commentators and political opponents debated the timing of the trip. Some viewed it as the correct decision given the damage caused by the storm, but others saw it as an cynical attempt to divert attention away from the labor troubles at home.
Virginie Calmels, member of the Republican party and deputy mayor of Bordeaux, conceded it was important for the president to view the damage and support the victims.
“However, [traveling] on the day of the demonstrations, it helped put the focus elsewhere,” she said.
Maud Vergnol of the communist newspaper L'Humanité said on television that while Macron could not be reproached for visiting the Caribbean, it was evidently an attempt to dodge the reality of what was happening on French city streets.
“But reality will return to him quickly.”
“If Macron had not gone to the Caribbean, we would have found it rather strange,” said Maurice Szafran, editor at the business weekly magazine Challenges, dismissing the criticism as a “media frenzy.”
Macron was attacked by some on social media both in France and on the Caribbean islands, where some saw the trip as a play for media attention by a president often mocked for self-serving use of social media.
“Unless he picks up a shovel to clear everything, I do not need him to come, just to appear in the media,” a resident of St. Martin, one of the seven territories in the French Antilles, said in a Twitter post.
Trade unions say most workers are opposed to the labor reforms announced by Macron’s government at the end of August to address what the president calls “three decades of inefficiency.”
The current system requires employers to give open-ended contracts to new recruits and makes it almost impossible to fire an employee, except for serious misconduct.
The restrictions discourage employers from hiring more staff, and France’s unemployment rate stands at 9.6 percent, compared to the European Union average of 7.8 percent.
Macron wants a system that is less state-controlled, more flexible for employers and with lower taxes for businesses. He has pledged to revamp the unemployment insurance system, create a single healthcare system, and reduce taxes and social security contributions for businesses.
Trade union collective agreements will also be limited and firms with fewer than 20 staff will be able to negotiate directly with individual employees, instead of with a union branch or representative.
The proposals include setting a minimum and maximum amount of compensation in cases of unfair dismissal, and the creation of a single staff representation body – rather than the current system where companies of varying sizes have differing staff institutions which can wield significant power in decision-making.
Macron announced during his presidential campaign that he would implement those measures by ordinances (executive orders), bypassing the usual parliamentary procedure.
He has promised safeguards. The labor code will continue to establish a legal working time of 35 hours per week (which remains the trigger for overtime) and retain a minimum wag – currently set at 1,150 euros ($1,367) a month although Macron plans to raise it by an as-yet unannounced amount on January 1.
All three major trade unions are opposed to the reforms, and to Macron’s attempts to introduce them via ordinances.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the left wing CGT union, claims to have attracted more than 400,000 protestors to more than 180 protests across the country this week.
Failed presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of the self-declared heads of the anti-Macron opposition, is calling for another mass demonstration on September 23. The left-wing politician has denounced the Macron reforms as a “social coup.”