Wednesday 15 August 2018

France faces spring of discontent as workers fight Macron reforms

Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters
Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters

David Chazan in Paris

Rail managers are being offered bonuses for driving trains during three months of rolling strikes that started yesterday, as President Emmanuel Macron faces a make-or-break confrontation with unions in his push to modernise France.

Air France staff, dustmen, civil servants, electricity, gas and other public utilities workers also plan strikes this week amid spreading unrest and fears of nationwide protests in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 uprising.

Workers at France Télévisions, the state broadcaster, will also strike. Hundreds of supermarkets were forced to close over the Easter weekend as workers walked out in protest against low wages and job cuts at Carrefour, France's largest private-sector employer.

At least 10 universities have cancelled classes because of student demonstrations against tougher new entrance requirements. Two faculty members face charges over accusations they encouraged masked thugs armed with baseball bats to attack students staging a sit-in at Montpellier University, in southern France.

The discontent echoes the militancy of 1968, when student protests and nationwide strikes paralysed France's conservative, post-war establishment and left liberal thinking to dominate social policy and education.

Since then, French presidents' attempts to take on the powerful unions have generally ended in humiliating U-turns, notably in 1995 when a wave of general strikes forced Jacques Chirac to abandon plans for far-reaching economic reforms.

But Mr Macron is calculating France is ready to break the taboos that have weakened its economy. Spurred on by his successful labour reforms last year, he is determined to give no ground.

His showdown with the rail unions is seen as his "Thatcher moment". A poll on Sunday suggests nearly three-quarters of the public are convinced he will win the battle, as Margaret Thatcher did against UK miners in the 1980s.

The centrist president will still have to proceed with caution. Only 51pc of the French back his drive to reform the economy and 46pc support the rail strikes, the poll indicates.

Strikes are planned for two days out of every five until the end of June as rail workers aim to disrupt services without losing all their wages. French law requires a minimum service during strikes, but Guillaume Pépy, the head of the state-run rail company SNCF, warned some lines may have to be closed.

The government is hoping that the strikers' support will dwindle as commuters and holidaymakers are forced to postpone travel plans. Elisabeth Borne, the transport minister, said: "The French have no wish to suffer three months of torment which nothing justifies."

Philippe Martinez, the dour leader of the leftist CGT union, appears as resolute as Mr Macron.

With a drooping, Asterix-style moustache that gives him a faintly military air, he often frowns as he talks of "co-ordinating the struggles" of workers in different sectors. Yet his rhetoric of class warfare and his militant positions jar with many French workers, only 11pc of whom are unionised.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News