ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
French President Emmanuel Macron says he wants to dramatically change the country. One of his first moves was to overhaul the labor code. That brought out thousands of French union members and the political opposition today in mass demonstrations. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley says it's the first major test for the young president. She sent us this report.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in French).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Macron wants the law of the bosses, chanted a demonstrator on a megaphone as a crowd marched down a wide boulevard in the center of Paris, carrying flags, balloons and placards. Loudspeaker trucks blared out more chants and revolutionary songs. One of the protesters, Clebert Negre, is a captain on a tourist boat on the Seine River.
CLEBERT NEGRE: Why I am here? Because it's biggest offensive against workers' right we have never seen. The government want to wreck all our protection.
BEARDSLEY: Those hard-fought protections, say workers, are enshrined in a massive tome known as the French labor code. Macron wants to change the code in an effort to kick-start the economy and bring down unemployment. Specifically, Macron wants to make it easier for companies to hire and fire, and he wants to allow management and employees to negotiate at a local level without necessarily involving national unions. Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is the only real opposition to Macron in Parliament, spoke at today's march.
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JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Through interpreter) The president wants this battle to the death and we are going to give it to him. We will all band together, defend our work code and make him back down.
BEARDSLEY: Earlier this week while speaking in Athens, Macron said France would turn its economy around and he would cede nothing to slackers. Those comments only riled people up more. Nurse Valerie Manuac carried a sign saying I'm a nurse's aide, I'm exhausted, I'm angry, but I'm not lazy.
VALERIE MANUAC: (Through interpreter) He tried to deny he was calling us lazy, but we know he was. And we're here in the street to show our anger. And we'll keep coming back.
BEARDSLEY: Macron is pushing through his labor code overhaul by decree without a parliamentary debate even though he has a big majority in Parliament.
THOMAS GUENOLE: The Parliament is not the problem. The problem is the street.
BEARDSLEY: Political scientist Thomas Guenole says Macron is in complete control, although he's still concerned about reaction on the street.
GUENOLE: He can write whatever he wants in it. He has the permission of the Parliament. On the other side, you've got unions and the left wing dominant force. And if they want the reform to fail, they have to put the government on its knees.
BEARDSLEY: If Macron feared months of strikes and protests, then today would've given him some reassurance. The French media described the turnout at today's marches as smaller than unions had predicted, although there are two more days of protests scheduled for later this month. President Macron believes the vast majority of French people are in favor of changing the labor law to re-energize the French economy.
GREGORY BOUCHER: Bonjour.
BEARDSLEY: Gregory Boucher runs an employment agency just off today's protest route. He says he has job vacancies but often can't fill them even though there are many unemployed. Boucher says he agrees with Macron's plans to give more incentive to work.
BOUCHER: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "These people have so many employment protections and they don't want to let anything go," says Boucher. "But this isn't the 1970s, and things now have to change." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOCEAN WORKER'S "RIGHT NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.