Paris — The French government will press ahead with President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship labour reforms despite the first mass protests against his pro-business agenda, a leading minister said on Wednesday.

"It stems from a campaign promise made by Macron," work minister Muriel Pénicaud said, referring to changes aimed at giving companies more flexibility in hiring and firing. "We are implementing the things that the French people asked us to do, so we’re not going to back down," she told BFM TV.

About 200,000 people according to police — 500,000 according to organisers — answered a call from the Communist-backed CGT trade union to strike and protest against Macron’s proposals nationwide on Tuesday.

The business-friendly Macron wants to make France more attractive for both local companies and foreign investors who have long complained about restrictive workplace rules and the power of trade unions.

The French people asked us to transform the country, they asked us to act," Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told the France 2 channel. "I know the French people know perfectly well that our country is not in a healthy position."

The new law will give small company bosses, in particular, more freedom to negotiate working conditions directly with their employees while capping compensation for fired workers. Macron, elected in May, has angered unions by using executive orders to fast-track the changes, which are set to take effect by the end of September, before being ratified by parliament in the coming months. The changes "will help to lower mass unemployment," Pénicaud said, referring to a national jobless rate that stands at 9.5% — and double that level for young people and in deprived areas.

The turnout for Tuesday’s protests was comparable to the first day of rallies last year against labour reforms under Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande.

French newspapers were divided on who had emerged strongest from the first round of what promises to be a lengthy battle between the government and the CGT, France’s biggest and most militant trade union. "Respectable turnout but not enough given the government’s determination," judged columnist Frédéric Vezard in the Parisien newspaper.

Gaëtan de Capèle, a columnist in the right-leaning Figaro, said the "day of action against the labour reform was nothing like the wave of protest that had been promised".

The editor of the left-leaning Libération newspaper, Laurent Joffrin, saw neither side as victor, saying the head of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, had won, but "Macron hasn’t lost".


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