Protesters, galvanised by trade unions, have gathered to fight a French president’s plans to reform the economy. In the past 25 years, says Charles Bremner in The Times, this kind of uprising has forced all presidents to “abandon or dilute” structural change. But this time it could be a different story. Look beyond the usual images of tear gas and streetfighting, and “discontent is nowhere near the critical mass needed to derail a determined new president”. Emmanuel Macron is respected for trying to do exactly what he promised, and while most of the population is not keen on the sound of his measures to make France’s rigid labour market more flexible, a majority say they are willing to give him a chance to succeed.
It also bodes well, says Simon Nixon in The Wall Street Journal, that Macron enjoys “unique political circumstances”. His centrist party has a big majority, the opposition is in a mess and there are no major elections for three years. But he should tread carefully, says Nicholas Vinocur in Politico magazine. “Protests may well gather momentum later this month, when university students pile in.” His denunciation of protesters as “slackers” makes that all the more likely.
Still, something radical needs to be done since “France’s unemployment rate has remained unacceptably high”, says The Economist. Indeed, “at 9.5%, it is more than twice that in Germany, and has not dipped below 7% since 1980”, while “the jobless rate for the under-25s is over 20%”. Macron has distanced himself from “ghoulish unchecked capitalism”; he wants to “match a liberalised labour market with a modernised welfare system, which can better protect people – rather than jobs”. In effect, Macron “seeks to turn France not into America or Britain, but a sort of Scandinavia à la française”.
He wants Danish-style “flexicurity” where it is easier to hire and fire, yet the state helps and supports workers to move from employer to employer, says Alan Beattie in the Financial Times. The trouble is that “the kind of co-operative relationships between unions and management embedded in the Nordic model are largely absent from France”. Indeed, Danish unions “regard themselves as responsible for the unemployed as well as existing workers, and for skills as well as jobs”. But French unions focus on protecting insiders, leading to a “two-tier” labour market with “a core of well-protected employees and a periphery of lower paid insecure workers”. Performing a Scandinavian labour market transplant on France is easier said than done.