French president faces biggest test yet over labor reform

French President Emmanuel Macron faces his biggest test yet with Thursday's release of a divisive pro-business labor reform that he hopes will secure his legacy and revolutionize the way the French work.

But the high-stakes move comes just as his popularity is sinking, and unions and political opponents have already called for street protests and strikes in what could be an unusually hot autumn.

It was the most emblematic campaign promise of Macron, elected in May on a centrist, pro-business platform. But opponents fear it will weaken hard-won worker protections that have become globally synonymous with the much-envied French lifestyle.

Foreign investors and France's European neighbors are watching Macron's plan closely — almost as closely as the French workers it will directly affect. France is the No. 2 economy in the eurozone, but its chronic 10-percent unemployment has long weighed on the region's growth.

The labor overhaul is the central pillar in Macron's promises to create jobs and make his country more globally competitive after repeated failed efforts at reform.

"The job market doesn't work correctly and the rules are not adapted to an open world where things are moving fast," Macron said last week during a visit to Austria.

The details of the plan, to be disclosed Thursday in a list of decrees, will determine how far the reform will change the country's stringent labor rules.

One measure is expected to cap the financial penalty for companies sued for firing employees.

Other changes aim at simplifying negotiations process between employers and employees.

A big question Thursday is how much the reform will reduce the power of national collective bargaining, which has long dominated French labor relations — the reason French unions are so influential despite relatively low union membership. The plan is expected to give businesses more flexibility to define internal working rules instead of being bound by sector-wide rules.

Left-wing opponents fear it will hand too much power to profit-focused bosses, while some conservatives fear it won't go far enough.

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said Wednesday more than 100 meetings with unions and employers organizations were held to prepare the reform.

He acknowledged the government expects some measures to be contested but said the reform aims at being "ambitious" — not reaching a consensus.

Pierre Gattaz, president of France's main employers' organization, Medef, said on BFM television this week: "We have been awaiting this plan for decades."

The reform's success depends heavily on how many unions oppose it. Philippe Martinez, leader of the hard-left CGT, one of France's major unions, has called for protests and strikes Sept. 12, but some others are waiting to see the detail in the decrees.

"They want to make us believe that ... it's the only solution to reduce unemployment, but that's a lie of the government," Martinez told RTL radio this week.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished fourth in the presidential race, has called for another street protest on Sept. 23 against "anti-democratic" measures.

The government decided to use a special procedure at Parliament to avoid a lengthy debate and get the labor plan passed more quickly.

The draft decrees released Thursday aren't final, but nearly so. They are to be formally approved in a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 20 after being endorsed by the Council of State, the country's highest administrative authority. Parliament, dominated by Macron's party, must ratify them by the end of the year.

France's main European partners have repeatedly called on France to reform its job market to boost Europe economically.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in Paris on Wednesday that he was "impressed" by what he heard about the reform.

"I'm sure this will help (France) to become stronger," Gabriel said.

The French public, however, has quickly lost its excitement about Macron, whose poll ratings have plunged in recent weeks after the government launched labor reform negotiations and announced budget cuts.

Last week during a trip to Romania, Macron said "the French hate reforms" but "we must explain where we are going and propose deep change."

The Elysee palace is trying to improve his image, and announced this week the creation of a presidential spokesman position. Former TV journalist Bruno Roger-Petit will be in charge of "broadcasting the Elysee's public message" in an effort to better promote its policy.