France will not be turned into "liberal England', Emmanuel Macron has been warned, as clashes broke out in protests against loosening labour regulations seen as a key public test of the president's reformist resolve.
Stone-throwing protesters in Paris clashed with police who responded with tear gas as some 4,000 strikes were called around France by the country's biggest public sector trade union, the hardline CGT.
Rail workers, students and civil servants were urged to protest in cities from Paris to Toulouse. By mid-afternoon, the CGT had already deemed the protests a "success", with at least 100,000 in force in provincial France and 60,000 in Paris. Police said there were 24,000 protesters in Paris. The numbers were, however, well below protests against another labour reform last year.
Hundreds of masked protesters dressed in black clashed with police in Paris, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.
The reference to Britain came not from the unions but from far-Left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who pledged to force Mr Macron to "backtrack" on business-friendly changes to France's labour code, which he recently called a "social coup d'état".
"What is going to be a surprise is when he (Macron) ends up giving way," the leader of opposition party France Unbowed told reporters as he joined a protest in the southern port of Marseille. "This country doesn't want the liberal world... France isn't England," he added.
Mr Mélenchon, who came fourth in this year's presidential elections, taking 19.6 per cent of around seven million votes sees Mr Macron, an ex-investment banker, as an Anglo-Saxon ultra-liberal whose aim is to unpick the French social model. Polls suggest he is currently seen as Mr Macron's most credible opponent, given the parlous state of the mainstream Right and Left.
Unions are wary of the charismatic orator stealing their limelight as protest figurehead. They are not best pleased his party is organising a separate march on September 23.
Mr Macron, meanwhile was thousands of miles away from the marches visiting hurricane-struck compatriots in the French Caribbean.
He made no mention of the strike protests as he visited the devastated islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where residents are angry at the speed of the rescue effort. But he will have kept a close eye on the scale of protests today against his business-friendly changes to the labour code.
If the reform passes smoothly, it will bode well for a slew of other upcoming reforms on unemployment insurance, professional training and - most controversially - pensions.
Protest leaders had hoped that ill-advised comments by Mr Macron apparently likening striking workers to "slackers" would swell the ranks of demonstrations around France. CGT leader Philippe Martinez said he was "scandalised" by the comment.
"The president should listen to the people, understand them, rather than cause divisions," Mr Martinez told France 2. This was just "phase one" of protests, he insisted. Another is planned for September 21.
Although the reform concerns the private sector, his union called for strikes across transport and other public sector businesses.
CGT workers from the rail, oil and power sectors also heeded his call. Roads into several major cities were blocked and some trains cancelled.
Budget airline Ryanair accused unions of “holding Europe to ransom” after being forced to cancel 110 flights.
Furious, its marketing director Kenny Jacobs slammed the French government and European Commission saying: “They cannot stand idly by as more disruption and travel misery is inflicted upon Europe’s consumers and airlines.” Travellers were advised to check its website.
Some students' unions also called on members to take action.
In the early hours of Tuesday, lorries were already blocking Paris' iconic Champs-Elysées and Place de l'Etoile, while staff at the Eiffel Tower were also due to go on strike in the afternoon.
In one unexpected development, fairground workers - including the boss who runs the big wheel at Paris' Place de la Concorde - led blockages in Paris and elsewhere, furious at a totally unrelated administrative decree passed in April.
A less radical reform of France's labour code sparked huge blockages and sometimes violent protests last year, but the Socialist government stood firm - a sign that the unions no longer have the clout to strong-arm Gallic governments to backtrack.
This time, Mr Macron took comfort from the fact that two other unions, Force Ouvrière and the CFDT, the largest in the private-sector, declined to join the protests. However dozens of local units of the normally pugnacious FO ignored their leader's call to stay away and marched regardless.
After weeks of negotiations, the government last month set out measures including a cap on payouts for dismissals judged unfair, and greater freedom for companies to hire and fire.
The reform hands firms more flexibility to set pay and working conditions. The government plans to adopt the new measures, being implemented by decree, on Sept. 22.
During a trip to Athens on Friday, Macron told French business leaders: "I am fully determined and I won't give any ground, not to slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners."
Bruno Cautres of the Cevipof political research institute said Mr Macron had "thrown oil on the fire" with his choice of words."With the 'slackers' comment, there are all the ingredients for this to heat up," he said.
Mr Macron insisted that the term "slackers" referred to those who had failed to push through reforms in the past "in France and Europe", but many viewed it as an attack on the unemployed or on workers on highly-protected staff contracts.
In Bordeaux, protesters chanted: "Macron you're screwed, the slackers are in the streets" while in Paris others carried placards reading: "Slacker on strike".
Asked on Monday if he regretted his comment, he replied: "We cannot move forward if we don't tell it like it is."
"It's Macron's style," said Jerome Fourquet of pollster IFOP. "He's not going to back down, make apologies. That carries a risk."
The president's stated aim is cut unemployment from 9.5 per cent to 7. 5 per cent by 2022.
The reforms are seen in Germany as a test of the French president's resolve to "re-found" the eurozone's second-biggest economy, key if he is to win Berlin's backing for broader reforms to the currency union.
An opinion poll published on September 1 indicated that voters have mixed views on the reform. Nearly six in 10 said they opposed Macron's labour decrees overall. But when respondents looked at individual measures, most received majority support.
Emmanuel Macron - Satisfaction with French presidents in first 100 days
Mr Macron's attempts to push through the changes come as France's economic growth is accelerating, unemployment appears to be falling, and the unions are divided.
Finance minister Bruno Le Maire told the newspaper Les Echos that voters had chosen Mr Macron "to carry out the reforms that France has shrunk away from for 30 years".