French Labor Reform Opponents May Skip Summer Vacation

Though unions are calling for a general strike in September, opposition to Macron's labor law reform could pick up as early as mid-July.

By Eric Falcon

July 07, 2017
Labor Law Unrest Risk

Predata signals anticipating civil unrest against labor law reform. Link to Predata signal

Is there anything standing in Emmanuel Macron's way? Following a convincing result over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, and his party's historic performance in legislative elections that gave his government the largest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic, there remain few procedural obstacles to the young centrist's plans to reform the country. While there is a vocal – albeit small – leftist opposition in parliament, the loudest voice against any possible reform in France comes from the same place it has for the last 300 years: the street.

When François Hollande's administration forced a highly contentious first pass at reforming the labor code through parliament last spring, it was met with a month-long wave of demonstrations and labor strikes that brought the country to a halt. Opposition to the Loi Travail was so intense it emboldened opposition within Hollande's own party, pressuring the government to water down key reforms. Particularly galvanizing were the capping of termination settlements as well as the generalization of firm-level (as opposed to sector-level) wage and working time negotiations, both scrapped from the final law. It is precisely these types of reforms that Macron aims to push through this summer.

To track the likelihood of new demonstrations and strikes against labor law reform efforts, we built a predictive signal based on nearly 200 digital sources related to French social and economic issues, past protests, law enforcement agencies, and key regulations. As indicated in the chart above, the signal hit its high point just before the largest wave of opposition action in May/June 2016, and has begun rising sharply again following the recent legislative elections. Both the 14- and 30-day predictive models are spiking, a clear sign that the same patterns of online conversation that preceded anti-labor reform unrest last year are recurring. This means that despite calls from major unions for a general strike in mid-September, protests and strikes could occur throughout July.  

WHAT GROUPS ARE DRIVING INCREASED RISK?

Far-left political movements — some veterans of the 2016 strikes, some newcomers — are orchestrating the opposition to Macron's reforms and will seek to mobilize ordinary French workers concerned with pay and job security.

Ruffin Source Activity

Among the digital sources most associated with heightened risk of anti-labor reform unrest are Wikipedia pages related to filmmaker François Ruffin and his newspaper, Fakir. Ruffin rose to prominence last year for producing the anti-capitalist documentary Merci patron! (Thanks, Boss!) and was recently elected to the National Assembly under the banner of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise (Non-submissive France). Mélenchon and his party's rapid rise in French society rivals only Macron's. While Ruffin drew considerable attention during the legislative campaign, the last time these pages were this active was around the peak of the anti-labor reform opposition in spring 2016. 

Nuit Debout Source Activity

The face of the grassroots opposition to labor law reform will be different this time. The Nuit Debout (Up All Night) movement was a major force in the last wave of 2016 protests. Inspired by the Occupy Movement in the US, Nuit Debout surfaced in April 2016 to oppose ongoing state of emergency, income inequality, and lack of economic opportunity for young people. Supporters — millennials mostly — occupied the Place de la République, common site of protests in Paris, for a number of weeks, holding discussions, rallies, and concerts. And then, like Occupy, the movement fizzled out. Though opposition to Macron's labor reform is fomenting, the lack of attention to Nuit Debout shown in the signals above suggest the movement will remain dormant. 

Employment Source Activity

Unsurprisingly, a number of sources related to French employment law and job support are driving the heightened risk of anti-labor law reform action. In particular, the French-language Wikipedia page 'Layoff' is at its most active level since the height of the demonstrations and strikes in June 2016. The Twitter account for Pole Emploi, a state-backed organization supporting job seekers, also saw a boost in activity over the past month. 

Security Services Source Activity

Lastly, attention to France's primary civil pacification security services also tended to coincide with anti-labor law reform action. The French-language Wikipedia page for France's elite riot police, the notorious Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (Republican Security Companies), saw a massive spike around the peak of the unrest in June 2016. Attention to the riot troops is currently low — but conversations related to security services have tended to rise immediately before and during waves of demonstrations, not in the weeks prior. Look to these sources as indicators of whether things are about to boil over. 

SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED?

You do not need a predictive algorithm to tell you that there will be strikes and protests in France in response to contentious labor law changes: protecting the French social state is an essential part of the national identity. But Predata's signals suggest that opposition will pick up as early as July, well ahead of the union-announced schedule. That conversations related to far-left political movements like La France Insoumise are driving those signals confirms the movement has already established itself as Macron's chief foil. Increased attention online to employment issues is a sign that the prospect of reform has ordinary French citizens thinking about job security and pay packet. The leftists — though unable to stop Macron in parliament — will seek to galvanize these concerned workers and unleash a wave of civil unrest that will derail the new president's agenda.