A jittery France faces into a summer of discontent - on cusp of Euro 2016
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
As France prepares to host two million visitors during the Euro 2016 football championships next month, the images of riot police beating back protesters amid clouds of tear gas in Paris this week could not have come at a worse time.
Months of protests against new labour reforms that give employers more flexibility while diluting the power of the unions have escalated into nationwide strikes and fears France is facing into a summer of discontent.
This week, union activists shuttered a number of French oil refineries and depots, leaving many fuel stations across the country without fuel. The government resorted to tapping into its strategic reserves, but supplies remained patchy, triggering lengthy queues and restrictions on sales.
The hard-line Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) union federation also targeted ports, nuclear power stations and transport networks with strikes or blockades. "Towards total paralysis?" asked 'Le Parisien' newspaper on its cover on Wednesday, with the accompanying picture showing long queues for fuel. Protesters took to the streets in several cities. In Paris, tens of thousands joined rallies that later turned violent when activists clashed with riot police. More than 70 people were arrested.
The focus of their ire was what is often described in the media here as 'the El Khomri Law' - a reference to labour minister Myriam El Khomri. The proposed tweaks to the labour regulations enshrined in France's 3,689-page 'Work Code' include loosening rules related to the 35-hour work week and leaving workers less protected from lay-offs.
In the bitter debate over how to make France's economy more competitive in a globalised world while balancing worker benefits and protections long taken for granted, many economists gripe about restrictive labour laws, including legislation that binds employers tightly to their staff. This, ironically, has birthed a precarious new work culture of temporary contracts because firms are wary of the obligations involved in permanent arrangements. Young French people entering the workforce for the first time have been hit hardest by this.
Anger over the proposed reforms reached a new height when the government forced the bill through parliament without a vote on May 10 as the Socialist majority there remained divided.
This week, Prime Minister Manuel Valls hinted elements of the proposed bill could be amended but he insisted the core of the legislation - Article 2, which would weaken France's powerful unions - would remain.
The French public is caught between opposing the move - opinion polls show some 60pc are against the new law - and fearing continued unrest in a nation still skittish and under a state of emergency after last year's terrorist attacks in Paris. According to a survey this week, around 70pc of French people would prefer the government to capitulate, rather than see the world's sixth-largest economy paralysed by strikes.
The stakes are high for both President Francois Hollande and his adversaries in the unions. Hollande, who is battling approval ratings that show him to be the least popular leader in modern French history, needs to project strength as he hopes to get re-elected next year.
He has pledged not to stand for re-election if he does not succeed in slashing the unemployment rate of almost 11pc (joblessness among the youth is twice as high) and restoring growth from its current moribund rate.
The unions determined to take him on are themselves struggling to stay relevant amid falling membership rates.
While France experienced oil refinery blockades in 2010 when then-president Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through pension reforms, this year's protests are different because while Sarkozy was right-wing and loathed by the trade unions, Hollande's administration is the first Socialist government to face such a strong nationwide challenge by unions in more than three decades.
For now, neither the government nor the unions show any sign of backing down.
Mr Valls insists the reforms are "good for workers" and small businesses and will help kick-start the economy. The unions and their supporters see in the proposed law the erosion of rights fought for over decades.
The stand-off is unlikely to be resolved by the time the Euro 2016 tournament opens in two weeks' time. Already jittery over security threats, France faces what may be a long, hot summer of strikes and street protests.