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2016-12-02 02:05:12
In France, a Candidate Intent on a Conservative Overhaul

PARIS — He compares himself to Margaret Thatcher, the British leader who set her country on a right-leaning economic course. A French newspaper splashed him on its cover with the Iron Lady’s hairdo and pearl earrings.

François Fillon, the conservative politician who has vaulted to the forefront of France’s presidential race against the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, is vowing to make France’s economy great again. Campaigning on fears of a country in decline, he has pledged “shock therapy” to liberalize the economy, à la Mrs. Thatcher, through a program of shrinking big government, aiding business and facing down France’s powerful labor unions.

His brash talk has raised concerns about a radical shift from French traditions, while reviving a perennial question: Can France actually be reformed?

“The short answer is yes, but not so ambitiously,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “The French love economic reform in theory. They hate it in practice once they understand what it means.”

While the French economy has become more open and competitive in recent decades, resistance breaks out almost anytime the government tries to reshape France’s way of life, especially the vaunted social model, designed to protect citizens from the ravages of the free market. When the focus is on whittling hard-fought human and worker rights — a concept whose roots reach back to the French Revolution — tensions can boil over.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets this year when President François Hollande sought to loosen labor laws to stoke employment, proposals that do not go as far as Mr. Fillon wants. Garbage piled up on sidewalks. Oil refineries were blockaded. Banks were defaced and police cars were firebombed. In the end, Mr. Hollande’s Socialist government forced the measures through by special decree.

With his approval ratings at record lows, Mr. Hollande announced on Thursday that he would not seek a second term, the first postwar French president to do so.

If elected in May, Mr. Fillon will probably face a similar showdown as he seeks government cuts and deeper labor reforms while the economy is weak. “France’s social model is broken,” he said on the campaign trail. “Sometimes you just need to pull the house down and rebuild it.”

His most bitter medicine involves shrinking a government that accounts for more than half of the country’s economy, by cutting 500,000 Civil Service jobs and slashing 100 billion euros in spending over five years. To enhance competitiveness, he wants to weaken labor union power, kill the infamous 35-hour workweek, cut corporate taxes and distill France’s 3,400-page labor code to 150 pages.

Much of that will not be easy to carry out. Mr. Fillon will face opposition on austerity from Socialist and National Front lawmakers in Parliament. Heightened security after the terrorist attacks in France will add pressure not to include police and hospital workers in Civil Service reductions. And his ambitious plans for helping businesses are likely to bring unions and workers back out into the streets.

“At the smallest sign of change, there’s protest,” said Philippe Plantier, the founder of Travaux Grande Hauteur, a midsize industrial cleaning company near Aix-en-Provence, in southern France. He is one of thousands of businessmen across France who hope that Mr. Fillon, if elected, will stand firm in the face of almost certain strike action.

“As an employer, anything that will streamline the labor code and get rid of the 35 hours would help create jobs,” Mr. Plantier said. “We need to liberate this economy, Anglo-Saxon style, if France is to be competitive.”

In the sluggish economy, his orders fell this summer for cleaning big industrial structures, like bridges and cement factories. Mr. Plantier moved to lay off several of his more than 50 employees to adjust for declining income.

But the workers sued to block the layoffs and sought more than €100,000 in damages. “When you hire someone in France, it’s for life,” he said.

French politicians, and the French people, agree that the economy needs repairing.

Since France emerged from a recession in 2010 after Europe’s debt crisis, growth has languished below 2 percent annually. Unemployment is stuck around 10 percent, more than twice the rate in Germany. Nearly a quarter of young people are without work, and many of the new jobs being created are on precarious temporary contracts.

France is, of course, still a rich country. It has the second-largest economy in the eurozone behind Germany’s, scores of world-class multinational companies and a stream of international investment. Yet there remains a heated debate about how to improve growth.

The Socialist party now in power did little to invigorate the economy. It is divided and weak, and will be in more disarray with Mr. Hollande’s resignation. Other possible contenders on the left include Emmanuel Macron, a young, reformist former economy minister, who wants what he calls an “Uber-ization” of the economy to stoke innovation, an idea that would also dilute worker security.

Ms. Le Pen’s program is more populist, keeping the retirement age at 60, enhancing labor protections and raising the minimum wage. She would spurn international trade deals, and promises a national referendum on “Frexit,” a reference to a French exit from the European Union, after Britain’s departure vote this summer.

Economists say those plans are unsustainable. But Ms. Le Pen is betting that voters are more worried by Mr. Fillon’s Thatcheresque vision for the country. And the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States has given a lift to populists like Ms. Le Pen.

“People are going to realize that he wants to fire 500,000 civil servants, scrap the 35-hour workweek, cut social security and raise the sales tax,” Florian Philippot, vice president of the National Front, said of Mr. Fillon. “It’s terrible.”

While Mrs. Thatcher also tackled labor rules to reshape Britain, many in France don’t buy the argument that companies will hire more if they are allowed to fire more. On this issue, France’s labor unions are able to rally support.

Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of the hard-line General Confederation of Labor, which spearheaded the nationwide strikes this year, threatened a “mass mobilization” if Mr. Fillon tried to liberalize the economy too much. He warned that Mr. Fillon’s platform was little more than a pretext to strip workers of rights while companies profited.

Although union membership in France has slumped to around 8 percent of the work force, unions still wield power and don’t hesitate to use it. Last year union members ripped shirts off the backs of Air France executives as they escaped over a fence after detailing layoffs. Union workers have also held company bosses hostage or damaged property to make their point.

Mr. Fillon argues it’s time for France to “go around the unions.”

On a recent visit to a Smart Car factory in eastern France, he heralded the company as a model for letting employers negotiate more directly with employees. Last year, workers there agreed in a split vote to work 39 hours a week while being paid for 37 hours, because the company was facing difficulties.

And where mass demonstrations have struck fear into the hearts of previous presidents, Mr. Fillon’s attitude is: Bring it on.

“I’m willing to face strikes if that’s the price to save France,” he said.