The honeymoon is definitely over. Just four months after he was elected to lead France, Emmanuel Macron faced his first major nationwide protest Tuesday against major labor reform plans that are seen as the central pillar of his presidency. Tens of thousands of workers have gone on strike for the day, causing some travel disruption in public transport (and, it would seem, to people willing to visit the Eiffel Tower).
But the protest, led by the country's second-largest union, the leftist CGT, is unlikely to make the new president and his government yield. Macron believes he can prevail, in part since his plans had been spelled out clearly to voters before last spring's elections. Through 36 measures that are being fast-tracked and will bypass Parliament, Macron is determined to go faster and further than any of his recent predecessors have done to liberalize France's labor code and attempt to bring down a stubbornly high unemployment rate that continues to hover near 10%.
On the tactical front, the French president has also cleverly maneuvered to "nip the emergence of a united trade-union front in the bud," to quote a headline from Le Monde. It is also notable that Macron was far from Paris on Tuesday, having headed for the French half of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, where widespread looting and violence have brought civil-war like scenes after the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.
Whether the trip was timed to avoid the protests back home or simply Mother Nature dictating the presidential calendar, Macron's absence could serve to reinforce a growing sentiment of an out-of-touch and sometimes arrogant leader. His approval rating plummeted in an unprecedented fashion over the summer, while a speech last week in Athens, in which he branded workers opposed to his labor reform as "slackers," has further dented his image.
But Guillaume Tabard, writing in Le Figaro, wonders whether Macron is playing the long game — and baiting his most rigid opponents. The "slacker" remark attracted strong responses from veteran opponents on the far left, whom the 39-year-old President, a newcomer, considers as "discredited ... survivors of the "ancient world"." Macron's "gamble", Tabard explains, is that whenever he will face such bursts of leftist criticism, a majority of public opinion will side with him by default.
For the moment, Macron's vantage point of today's labor protests from storm-battered St. Martin is a ready-made metaphor: Are strikes in France just part of the weather? Or is it a problem that can be fixed?