People march with placards, flags and banners in Toulouse. The banner reads: "Macron, puppet of the employers"
Paris (AFP) - Protesters demonstrated Thursday against an imminent overhaul of France's labour laws but in far lower numbers than organisers hoped, just days before President Emmanuel Macron's flagship reforms enter the statute books.
The interior ministry estimated the crowds at 132,000 across France, just over half the numbers who took part last week in the first major street protests organised by trade unions since Macron was elected in May.
The 39-year-old centrist president is certain to welcome Thursday's lower turnout, but he will face more -- and potentially larger -- protests on Saturday called by the hard-left political party France Unbowed.
"What's important today and in the days and weeks ahead is that the movement gets bigger," said Philippe Martinez, the head of the Communist-backed CGT union behind Thursday's marches.
But Macron has insisted his government will not compromise.
The reforms, which will make it easier for companies to hire and fire, were worked out during three months of negotiations with union leaders.
"Democracy does not happen in the street," Macron said in New York on Wednesday, insisting he has a mandate for change after sweeping the board in presidential and parliamentary elections in May and June.
Philippe Braud, a professor emeritus of Sciences Po university, said the government has the upper hand and that the protest movement in France "has been weakening for the past 10 years".
"There's a sort of resignation among the French to reforms that are seen as necessary," Braud told AFP.
Macron has also been boosted by splits in the labour movement, with the CFDT and FO unions so far declining to back the protests and strikes.
Disruption at companies and to public services was limited last week and again on Thursday, though Martinez said more workers had joined the stoppage in the second round.
"When the unions, when the workers are divided, that is generally when the company owners win," Martinez acknowledged earlier.
- Fast-tracked changes -
The reforms, which are being fast-tracked via executive orders, are designed to give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their workers while reducing the costs of firing staff.
Public opinion is divided, according to a recent BVA poll.
Most say they think the reforms will boost France's competitiveness but fail to improve employees' working conditions.
Macron insists the changes will lower stubbornly high unemployment of 9.5 percent -- a view backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Thursday.
The Washington-based lender said the labour reforms, coupled with planned tax cuts and reductions in public spending, would help increase economic growth, which it forecast to reach 1.6 percent this year.
Once Macron's cabinet approves the labour measures Friday, they are expected to be published in the official gazette and enter law.
The use of executive orders is a way to implement the changes quickly and avoid a prolonged battle in the streets -- as seen last year when Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande made similar changes to labour law.
Twelve people were arrested Thursday after scuffles in the northwestern city of Nantes and disturbances were reported in Paris, but the marches did not see the level of violence that marred many of last year's protests.
- 'Social coup d'etat' -
While the use of decrees may succeed in overhauling France's complex workplace regulations, some critics see the method as reinforcing perceptions of Macron as a monarchical leader.
Criticism of him as aloof and sometimes authoritarian have contributed to sharp falls in his popularity, with his approval rating languishing at 44 percent according to an Odoxa poll out on Monday.
Macron derided his opponents earlier month as "slackers, cynics and extremists".
The phrase became a rallying cry for protesters, with many of them proudly declaring themselves "slackers" during both rounds of demonstrations.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Unbowed party, has slammed the reforms as no less than a "social coup d'etat".
The radical leftist has emerged as the figurehead for the opposition against Macron as France's other political parties squabble over the election results or search for new leaders.