Some observers are already taking the violence that erupted Thursday, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Paris, Marseilles and other French venues to protest proposed changes to the nation’s labor laws, as a sign that a so-called French Spring lies ahead.
But the fact that 24 police officers were reportedly injured, at least three of them seriously, could be taken instead as a sign that the French are willing to fight — literally — to preserve what they have come to cherish as part of their working life.
French labor laws have traditionally favored workers, establishing shorter workweeks than most other industrialized nations, making employee dismissal a court matter, and frustrating employers seeking greater flexibility in how they do business.
For example, The New York Times announced this week a plan to shutter its editing and pre-press operations in Paris not to save money but because a shift to its London headquarters would free management from France’s labor restrictions. As many as 70 staffers can expect to be laid off.
Supporters of the proposed changes argue that they are needed to address France’s staggering unemployment rate and note that the number of jobless would continue to rise if other multinationals were to follow the Times’ lead.
But massive demonstrations that initially greeted news of the reforms last month should have signaled that French workers have no intention of accepting life-changing legislative maneuvers with quiet acquiescence. And this week’s clashes should drive home the point that chants and picketing are off the table, replaced by a more hands-on challenge to the powers-that-be, the consequences be damned.