PARIS — Once again the French are taking to the streets in protest, and retailers here are worried that the movement against proposed reforms to the country’s complicated labor laws could gain momentum, turn violent and keep shoppers home.
Most industry executives characterized the impact of student and union protests so far as marginal. But on the eve of a transportation-hobbling general strike scheduled for today, they said concerns over prolonged civil strife have started to build.
Levi Strauss & Co. said traffic already has declined in its high street shops here.
“The situation is similar for all high street players,” said Brice Penaranda, Levi’s general manager for France. “The prospect of being stuck in the city center while protests are going on [does not] entice consumers.”
Although spokeswomen for the big Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores said they expected little disruption from the strike and have felt little impact from protests so far, luxury players voiced anxieties.
Bernard Fornas, president of Cartier International, said a strike is “certainly prohibitive for shoppers.” But he gave a nonchalant shrug when asked about the extent to which protests could hurt business.
“The French are used to demonstrations,” he said. “It’s becoming like breakfast, the usual French way. It’s never good. But a strike for one day is one day in a 365-day-long year.”
Sarah Lerfel, the buyer at Colette, said she expected tough business today.
“Many of our staff think they won’t be able to get to work, so it’s the same for customers,” she said.
Lerfel said the trendy fashion emporium so far has “survived events pretty well. But we’re worried that the protests and strikes could continue and get violent. It’s not good for tourism to see violence happening in Paris.”
Last week, youths clashed with riot police near the Invalides, where Napoleon is buried, and vandalized cars and shops during a protest march. Similar protests turned violent elsewhere in France.
Riot police have been on high alert for several weeks now, with the streets around the Sorbonne University barricaded. The bunker-like atmosphere has been compared to the famous May 1968 student movement. But critics have pointed out that while that movement aimed to change the world, this one wants to maintain the status quo.
The ruckus started after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed legislation that would relax the country’s rigid labor laws, making it easier to hire and fire first-time workers. Under the proposal, companies would be able to fire workers under the age of 26 without cause in the first two years of their contract. De Villepin met with union leaders over the weekend in an attempt to defuse the growing crisis, but the talks broke down after the government insisted the law go ahead.
Union leaders and students have called the legislation unfair, with protesters claiming it would make them “the Kleenex generation,” or one that employers would use and then discard. France suffers from endemic unemployment that hovers around 10 percent.
Unemployment was cited as one of the main causes of riots last fall, when angry youths rampaged in the Paris suburbs — mainly in immigrant neighborhoods — in what was the country’s worse civil disobedience in years.