French left stages street showdown over Macron reforms

French far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, right, with former Socialist party presidential candidate Benoit Hamon at Saturday’s rally in Paris. (AP)
Updated 23 September 2017

French left stages street showdown over Macron reforms

PARIS: Several thousand demonstrators rallied to a call Saturday by firebrand leftist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon to join a protest in Paris against President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping reforms of the labor code.
Melenchon was leading the march through the streets of the French capital on a bright sunny afternoon, with the crowd shouting “resistance, resistance” and no to “a social coup d’etat.”
It marks the third in a series of nationwide protests comes a day after Macron signed his landmark reforms into law using a fast-tracked procedure that avoided a lengthy parliamentary debate.
The changes to the labor code, which runs to around 3,400 pages in some editions, give small businesses more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their staff, instead of being bound by national agreements.
They also make it easier to lay off employees and cap compensation awards for unfair dismissal while also giving higher payouts to workers made redundant.
Macron argues the changes — the cornerstone of his program aimed at boosting entrepreneurship — will help bring down stubbornly high unemployment of 9.6 percent.
Melenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed party has accused Macron of unraveling decades of hard-won social gains.
Zabou Hervieu, 48, came by coach from Brittany to the demonstration.
“I am here for my daughter. She’s 10. Will there still be real jobs with good salaries when she’s grown?,” she said, leaning on a walking stick due to back and knee problems.
The left has also come out swinging against Macron’s plans to cut housing subsidies and reduce the scope of a wealth tax, claiming it as proof that the centrist is a closet right-winger.
“France has never had so many billionaires and millionaires. Why is it always the workers who have to tighten their belts?,” demanded Louis Bousquet, 33, unemployed and sporting a Mao cap.
France’s youngest ever president has vowed not to be swayed.
“I believe in democracy but democracy is not the street,” the 39-year-old told CNN television last week.
Saturday’s march will test continuing resistance to the measures.
On Thursday, some 132,000 people demonstrated across France, around half as many as protested a week earlier.
Addressing reporters at the Elysee Palace after signing five executive orders before television cameras Macron boasted that he had implemented his campaign pledge to shake up labor relations “in record time.”
The move to give bosses and workers more freedom to negotiate was “unprecedented” in French post-war history, he said.
Melenchon, a veteran 66-year-old political showman who placed fourth in this year’s presidential election, cast it as an attack “on the last country in Europe that is holding out on its post-war social gains.”
“The battle of France has begun,” he said on Thursday.
The measures chip into worker protections that have long been sacrosanct in France, frustrating reform-minded governments whether on the left or the right.
Three months of negotiations with union leaders produced a split between those willing to compromise — including the largest private-sector union, the CFDT — and those determined to fight the reforms, led by the country’s largest union, the militant CGT.
The resistance has, however, been weaker than that faced by Macron’s Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande last year over his changes to the labor code, which sparked months of sometimes violent protests.
The new reform comes as former investment banker Macron’s approval ratings plunge, with recent polls showing that only around 40 percent of French voters are satisfied with his performance.
His characterization of opponents of the labor changes as “slackers” has become a rallying cry.
Macron insists he has a mandate for change after his presidential win in May and his party’s thumping parliamentary victory in June
“Emmanuel Macron sees the election as a blank cheque to do what he wants...He has an authoritarian approach to power,” David Guiraud, France Unbowed’s 24-year-old spokesman on youth issues, said.
Public opinion is divided, according to a recent BVA poll, with most respondents saying they think the reform will boost France’s competitiveness but fail to improve conditions for workers.
Philippe Braud, professor emeritus at Paris’s Sciences Po university, said he believed popularity was not a concern for Macron.
“He knows he won’t be defeated in the street,” Braud said.

Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

Updated 15 August 2018

Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

  • Modi highlights manned space mission and major health care initiative during independence day address
  • PM’s speech a campaign launch for next year’s elections, observers say

NEW DELHI: India is planning its first manned space mission by 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday.

Delivering his fifth independence day speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, Modi said that the manned flight would be the culmination of India’s recent advances in space science.

“We have decided that by 2022, when India completes 75 years of independence, or before that, a son or daughter of India will go to space with a tricolor in their hands,” he said.

India will become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to send a manned mission to space.

In his 90-minute speech, Modi listed his achievements of the past four-and-a-half years and announced a new health care scheme that would cover 5 billion people.

Observers described Modi’s speech as a campaign launch for next year’s elections.

“No doubt next year’s elections are playing on the PM’s mind. The tone and tenor of the address reflects that,” said political analyst and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

As expected, the Indian PM announced his government’s flagship program, Ayushman Bharat, a national health scheme that will offer health insurance from about $5,000 to 1.4 million poorer families.

Popularly named “Modicare,” the scheme targets rural and middle-class voters and will be rolled out in the final week of September.

Comparing the past four years of his leadership with the previous government, Modi said that “the red tape has gone and now there is more ease of business — the sleeping elephant has started walking.”

He boasted that “India’s standing in the world has increased in the past four years and today when any Indian goes anywhere, all countries of the world welcome them and the power of the Indian passport has increased.”

However, the opposition Congress Party described the speech as high in rhetoric and low in substance.

“The Indian economy is a virtual shambles. The rupee has crashed to a historic low. Joblessness, farmers’ suicides, atrocities against marginalized Dalit groups, attack on minorities, corruption — all these show that the government has failed,” said Sanjay Jha, a Congress Party spokesman.

Aateka Khan, of Delhi University, said Modi’s speech was “hollow” and that “India has never looked as divided as it is looking now. He has failed to assure the besieged minorities about their security.”

Mukhopadhyay said the speech was “disappointing” and failed to reflect the vision Modi set out when he addressed the nation for the first time in 2014.

“He seems to be still blaming the opposition for the ills of the country,” the political analyst said.

Mukhopadhyay believes that “Modicare” ignores India’s huge infrastructure deficiency. “In the absence of good medical facilities, how are poor people going to benefit from the insurance?” he asked.

India’s 71st independence day also offered observers a chance to reflect and assess the country’s future.

“The legacy of freedom is under siege today. We as a modern nation state with secular principle are at a crossroads,” said Santosh Sarang, a political analysts based in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

“The forces of division are more predominant today than ever before in this independent nation.”

Sarang said that “economic growth is not the only parameter that can make India great; keeping India together and preserving its syncretic culture is also important. The way the attack on minorities has increased and their sense of insecurity has been institutionalized make us question how long we can remain a liberal and secular democracy.”

He warned that “majoritarian Hindu forces now want to rewrite the Indian constitution to make it exclusive, not inclusive.”

Urmilesh, a New Delhi-based thinker and analyst, agreed. “What is at stake is the idea of India. In 1947, we took a pledge to make India a modern, progressive nation and tried to promote scientific temper among new generation, but today a new idea of India is being promoted which sees its future in majoritarian politics. This is very much against the spirit of freedom struggle and nation-building.”

He said that independence day left him “somber and sad” that fundamentalist forces, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its protege Bhartiya Janata Party, which never participated in the freedom struggle and opposed the creation of a liberal and secular India, are ruling the country.

“The atmosphere in the country is so vicious that religious minorities and liberals have been pushed to the edge,” he said.

The right-wing activist Nirala, however, said that “the meaning of independence day does not remain the same all the time. We cannot have the same prism of looking at India as it was in 1947. What is happening today is the redefining of nationalism, which reflects the majoritarian thinking. Hinduism is the way of life in India and it should asserted unabashedly.”