France’s President Emmanuel Macron has unveiled his new cabinet. It inherits a difficult legacy, in particular a sluggish economy dogged by years of high unemployment. DW’s Doris Pundy reports from Paris.

Paris Wochenblatt Marianne Macron Cover (DW/D. Pundy)“The hardest part is yet to come” reads this French weekly’s headline

It is a quiet scene on Tuesday near the monument commemorating the French Revolution on Paris’s Square of the Republic. Traditionally, the statue is the starting point for protests taking place in the French capital. All traces of the most recent large demonstration on May 1 have disappeared. In a tiny alley less than 300 meters from here is the office shared by Claire Pauchet and Bernard Aznar. They’re fighting for the rights of the unemployed and those who only have unstable work. They know the Square of the Republic very well. Both were there when rallies against former president Francois Hollande’s labor market reforms went on for weeks.

Hollande’s poor results

“Even if we try to be objective – we can certainly not say that Hollande made a strong commitment the rights of the weak,” says Aznar, leader of the National Movement of Unemployed and Precarious Workers (MNCP).

The walls of the small office are plastered with photos taken during demonstrations. Hollande, he adds, was a very business-friendly president, with his former deputy secretary general, Emmanuel Macron, leaving his mark in this respect. The activists fear that there will be more business-friendly reforms in the future, and they want the new government to take the concerns of out-of-work people seriously and offer them alternatives..

Paris Politikaktivisten Bernard Aznar Claire Pauchet (DW/D. Pundy)Aznar and Pauchet fight for the rights of the unemployed

“Macron wants to facilitate business creation, but you have to bear in mind what he really means,” says Claire Pauchet. “That means that everyone is to become self-employed, like those young people riding on bicycles who deliver food to people’s doors. All of them are not employed, they don’t have social security, they have nothing!”

“Unemployment is our biggest economic problem, along with the trade deficit and the high public debt,” explains Paris-based economist Philippe Crevel. “In France, it is higher than the European average. We are as badly affected by it as Italy, Spain, or Greece.”

Almost 10 percent of all French adults don’t have a job. For those who are under 25, that figure rises to almost 25 percent.

Loss of time

“For the last 15 years, there have been attempts at improving the labor market situation. However, one president follows in the footsteps of another, ” says Crevel, adding nothing ever changed. Labor costs continued to be too high, working hours too inflexible, and France’s workers were not sufficiently qualified to cope shift to the digital age.

“Emmanuel Macron faces enormous responsibilities. Now, action must really be taken,” Crevel says. In order to reduce France’s unemployment sustainably, the economist has proposed a series of reforms: lower social security contributions, better education, more investment and more expertise.

Paris Vincent Godebout SNC (DW/D. Pundy)Volunteer Patrick Vignaux (r), pictured here with SNC president Vincent Godebout

Crevel believes that Macron’s chances are good: “He is young, energetic and does not belong to any of France’s traditional political parties.” Macron and his new party “La Republique en Marche” will be competing in parliamentary elections in June. “The party is facing a huge challenge,” says Crevel. “It currently does not have a single seat, but it needs an an absolute majority.”

“Macron’s five-year spell as president won’t be sufficient to change everything for the better in France,” says Patrick Vignaux. “However, the fact that we will now finally have some movement is what counts.”

For more than 10 years, Vignaux has been volunteering to help the unemployed. Initially, he worked with the “New Solidarity in the Face of Unemployment” (SNC) association for only a few hours per week. A few months ago, he asked his employer to allow him a year off to be able to commit himself full-time.

Opposition to reforms

“Francois Hollande did try to improve the labor market situation,” says Vignaux, “but he wasn’t successful.” During Hollande’s tenure, unemployment was reduced by a mere 0.1 percent. At one point, it even reached a record high of nearly 11 percent. “We need extensive economic reforms,” says Vignaux, who also calls for better job training.

Frankreich Protest gegen Arbeitsreformgesetz in Paris (picture-alliance/dpa/I. Langsdon)Paris’s Place de la Republique was the meeting point for those who protested Hollande’s economic reforms in 2016

In 2016, thousands protested in Paris and other French cities against the labor market reforms planned by Hollande’s government. The former president intended to revise labor agreements and loosen overtime regulations, in addition to reducing employment protection. After months of demonstrations and strikes, Hollande passed the labor market law by presidential decree, in order to bypass a vote in parliament.

“The labor unions are already bracing themselves for the follow-up battle,” says the economist Crevel. “I’m convinced we’ll hear a lot from them during the next couple of months.”

Emmanuel Macron has said he will attempt to pass initial economic reforms as early as this summer, also by presidential decree. And indeed, this doesn’t go down well with the activists: “If it turns out to be necessary during Macron’s tenure, we will take to the streets again,” says Claire Pauchet.

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