French workers protest Macron′s labor reforms

Emmanuel Macron labor reforms draw protest in France

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Four months after French President Emmanuel Macron was elected, workers have held a day of protests against changes to strict labor laws. The hard-left CGT union has called for workers to stage walkouts.

French President Emmanuel Macron faced his first major street protests on Tuesday when the country's largest union launched nationwide demonstrations against plans to reform the labor market.

Hard-left CGT union leader Philippe Martinez branded Macron's reforms a "social coup d'etat" as he called on rail workers, students and civil servants to join the protests.

Read more: What are Emmanuel Macron's labor reforms?

The CGT said 180 street protests and some 4,000 strikes were taking place.

"It's a first one and it looks like it's a success," Martinez said. 

The union said 400,000 people had turned out to march across the country, but the interior ministry put the number at 223,000 protesters.

However, despite thousands taking to the streets, the number of protesters appeared to be less than last year, when disruptive demonstrations rocked France for months. The impact of the protests on rail services, airports and public services also appeared to be limited. 

Although there were some isolated clashes between anarchists and the police in Paris, with tear gas fired at one point, the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

'Rise to the challenge'

Jean-Luc Melenchon, former presidential candidate and leader of the far-left movement France Unbowed, said he was confident Macron could be "made to pull back" from the reforms.

"Mr. Macron knows that this is a trial of strength and he looked for it. Now it's up to us to rise to the challenge," Melenchon said after joining protests in the southern French city of Marseille.

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Pushing forward

Macron, who was elected in May on a ticket to tackle red tape and high costs associated with hiring and firing staff, has vowed to go ahead with the shake-up, despite a backlash that has seen his popularity plummet in recent weeks.

Read more: Should France follow Germany's lead?

The 39-year-old centrist has fast-tracked the reforms using presidential executive orders. The reforms, which include a cap on payouts for dismissals and give greater freedom for companies to set pay and working conditions, is scheduled to come into effect on September 22.

Macron last week described opponents of his reforms as "slackers" and "cynics" - comments that union representatives called "scandalous."

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Presidential chambers

The Elysee Palace, located in Paris' eighth arrondissement, is truly one of the many crowning pieces of architecture of the French capital. The gates of 55 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore shield the president's palace from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Paris - despite being situated in the heart of the city.

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Dinner with Macron

On the inside, the grand edifice also meets all the standards expected of a presidential palace. The ostentatious dining room is fittingly luxurious, from its massive chandeliers to its brocade curtains. It is accentuated by golden pillars around its edges. Dignataries from around the world have dined here, savoring the best of French cuisine.

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French cuisine

In fact, the presidential palace is renowned for its haute cuisine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is rumored to have sent her personal chef there to learn a lesson or two from the French. Being a chef at the Elysee Palace, however, is a hard gig: it is estimated that the kitchen team produces 95,000 meals per year, ranging from sandwiches to state dinners.

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A piece of cake

One of the many delicacies prepared the Elysee Palace is the "Galette des Rois", which means "king cake" in English. Tradition has it that on Three Kings Day each year, a large cake is made with a little figurine hidden inside it. If the president is the one who finds it in his slice, he gets to be the king of France - but only for one day.

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Born with a silver spoon - or not

A former chef working at the Elysee Palace once told reporters that the silverware and crockery used at the presidential home are so valuable that they're kept under lock and key inside a vault. Nevertheless, those granted a visit with the president apparently often still manage to take a souvenir back home - usually a teaspoon.

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The property comes with a garden...

We don't know yet whether the Macrons have green thumbs or not, but they will have plenty of space to do some gardening if they want to. The grounds are more like a park, with lots of nooks and crannies for a vegetable patch or a rose garden. Former US first lady Michelle Obama, for instance, apparently rather enjoyed gardening at the White House.

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More than one room for each day

With 369 rooms and halls in total it's unlikely that there will ever be a scarcity of space at the Elysee Palace. After all, the personal chambers of the president only make up the east wing of the building, leaving plenty of room to play with. Should, however, the president not find things up to scratch, there's a team to make sure that everything is done to his utmost satisfaction.

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Goodbye yesterday, hello tomorrow

Before Emmanuel Macron can move into the Elysee Palace his predecessor, Francois Hollande, will have to vacate the presidential premises. Saying goodbye to such spectacular views might be difficult, but perhaps the outgoing president will find some comfort in knowing that many have come and gone before him. And one day, it will also be Macron's turn to say "au revoir" to Elysee Palace.

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The heart of the French Republic

The palace has been home to the French heads of state since 1873. The majority of French presidents have elected to reside in the luxurious premises. For the next five years, Emmanuel Macron will be joining their ranks - and perhaps for even longer. We wish Macron and the First Lady all the best at their new home, and vive la France!

Other unions set to negotiate

But while the CGT has called its members out - including those from the transport, oil and power sectors - several other unions, including the Force Ouvriere (FO), say they are prepared to compromise in an attempt to help kick-start the French economy. The country's stubbornly high unemployment rate at 9.5 percent is roughly twice that of Germany and Britain.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron's labor market reform – uncontroversial and insufficient

The current strict labor code has been staunchly protected by workers and unions despite attempts by successive governments to introduce reforms that have already taken place in many other European countries.

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cw,ls,mm/jm (AFP, Reuters)