Unrest over reforms could be Macron’s ‘defining moment’

Almost 50,000 marched in Paris as part of civil servant and transport demonstrations

Police and protesters clashed in Paris after tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers joined forces to march against French President Emmanuel Macron's reforms. Video: Reuters

 

Tens of thousands of people marched in protest at President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms in cities across France on Thursday. Some schools remained closed and air and railway traffic were disrupted by work stoppages. Staff at Air France will go on strike on Friday.

A total of 47,800 people marched in separate Paris demonstrations by civil servants and transport workers, according to statistics commissioned by French media organisations.

The two demonstrations converged on the Place de Bastille. In side streets, vandals wearing black clothing and ski masks broke windows with iron rods and hammers. CRS riot police fired tear gas and water cannon. Some demonstrators overturned glass recycling bins and threw bottles at the CRS.

Eight people were arrested at a demonstration in Nantes.

The strikes and protests were the first volley in what promises to be a protracted struggle over the reform of France’s national railway, the SNCF.

Four trade unions at the SNCF, especially the neo-Communist CGT, are vehemently opposed to the scheduled change in the status of railway workers.  Those who already enjoy guaranteed life-long employment will not be affected. But henceforward, all new hires will be subjected to the same rules as other French workers.

The railway strike is to resume on April 3rd and continue for two in every five days until the end of June. The government has promised it will not cave in.

Theories

Philippe Aghion, the economics professor whose theories have most influenced Macron, believes the showdown between the CGT and Macron over the reform of the SNCF will be a defining moment of Macron’s presidency.

“This is the equivalent of what the miners’ strike was for Thatcher in 1984-85,” Aghion said in an interview with The Irish Times. “It’s symbolic.”

Aghion says last year’s labour reforms were easy by comparison. “The labour reform was diffuse, and it happened close after the election. To oppose it was undemocratic, since Macron was implementing his programme,” he said, “whereas the SNCF reform was an implied, not explicit, part of the programme.”

“The most hardline union members work for the SNCF, and they want to stall Macron’s reform process. They will make commuters’ lives miserable, with 36 strike days between now and June. He has to stand firm. This is the moment of truth,” Aghion said.

The government is eager to prevent dissatisfied groups from coalescing. Pensioners, who usually support Macron, demonstrated on March 15th against a rise in the General Social Contribution or CSG tax which would penalise them disproportionately. Prime minister Edouard Philippe announced on Tuesday that he will exclude the hardest hit 100,000 pensioners for the first year.

The moderate, pro-EU, pro-reform CFDT trade union, which like Macron has roots in historic left-wing Christianity and social democracy, last year surpassed the CGT as France’s leading union.

Frustrated

But the CFDT’s leader, Laurent Berger, is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of consultation. “The Macron method is: ‘you talk, I decide’. No one knows which side he’ll come down on,” Berger said. The CFDT represents 15 per cent of SNCF workers, but Berger claims he only learned details of the reform from a news alert on his smartphone.

It was unfair of the government to give the impression that railway workers’ special status was the root cause of the SNCF’s problems, he added. “Half of them earn between the minimum wage and 1.3 times the minimum wage.”

Civil servants reject Macron’s plan to do away with 120,000 positions in the civil service, and a raft of smaller measures.

Commentators cite two historical precedents for what could be a spring of unrest. Thursday’s strikes and demonstrations occurred 50 years to the day after the founding of the “March 22 movement” at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris. It led to the May 1968 student and workers’ “revolution”.

When then prime minister Alain Juppé tried to reform the SNCF in the autumn of 1995, transport workers paralysed the country for more than a month.

But public opinion supported the strikers in 1995. Today, the left is divided. Two thirds of respondents to an Elabe poll for Nice-Matin newspaper said the reform of the SNCF was “good for the future”, while 43 per cent said they disapproved of the strikes.