Tens of thousands of train drivers, teachers, nurses, air traffic controllers and other public sector staff went on strike across France on Thursday, staging street protests against Emmanuel Macron’s plans for change.
The 180 street demonstrations nationwide were mainly peaceful, but scuffles erupted between police and hooded young protesters on the margins of marches in Paris and the western city of Nantes, where security forces fired teargas and water cannon.
The strikes saw transport cancellations, some schools and creches closed, as well as limits on some services such as libraries and rubbish collection. Around 30% of Paris flights were cancelled and there was airport disruption in the south.
France’s centrist president, who has been in power for nearly a year, has so far avoided large strikes and trade union action, managing to easily push through an overhaul of labour laws in the autumn despite limited street marches.
But Thursday’s strike marked a new joint phase in trade union action – the first time civil servants and railway staff had joined forces against Macron.
The two different sets of grievances have the potential to cause a headache for the French government.
France’s large public sector, which has 5.4 million state workers, is angry about Macron’s belt-tightening plans. Unions accuse him of seeking to dismantle the state sector. After his election promises of better recognition and remuneration for public sector staff, there has been fury among state workers that Macron has gone back on his word and in fact seeks to slash budgets, rely more on contract workers, introduce merit-based pay and make voluntary redundancies.
Workers complain of unfair pay stagnation and increasingly difficult workplace conditions. Macron has promised to cut the number of public workers by 120,000 over five years.
“Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly,” said Jean-Marc Canon of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest civil servants’ unions.
Meanwhile, rail workers are planning prolonged strike action that could last until June. They are protesting against Macron’s plans to push through sweeping changes to France’s vast state rail system, including cutting costs by limiting special employment rights for rail workers. From 3 April until 28 June rail unions have planned strikes on two days out of every five.
François Rauch, 65, a former SNCF rail operator, told Reuters: “We’re here against the government, which is only helping the rich.”
He said he was also protesting against tax hikes on pensions.
Macron’s government has insisted it will stand firm on its programme to cut state costs and is hoping public opinion will be exasperated by train disruption and not support the strikes. A poll for Les Echos showed just over half of French people backed Thursday’s strike but a majority of private sector workers were against it.
“We are going to continue reforming France in depth … with the certitude that our country needs this transformation to make up for the ground lost over previous decades,” Macron told reporters during a trip to India last week.
A separate survey by the Elabe group showed that 58% of French people thought Macron was implementing his manifesto programme but that 74% thought it was unfair.
Thursday’s strike date was deliberately chosen to echo the start of nationwide protests in 1968 that led to the country’s biggest ever strikes and the notorious street battles between police and students in May of that year.