World News

Strikes Disrupt France as Thousands Protest Macron Overhauls

Posted March 22, 2018 7:45 p.m. EDT
Updated March 22, 2018 7:48 p.m. EDT

PARIS — Travel was upended, schools were closed and tens of thousands of people took to the streets across France on Thursday as railway workers, teachers, students and air traffic controllers went on strike to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s economic and social policies.

The protests are a new challenge for Macron’s government as it gears up to overhaul France’s rail system and promises changes to unemployment benefits and the pension system. Railway workers are already planning rolling strikes in April and May.

“This is a wake-up call for the government,” said Laurent Berger, the secretary-general of the second-largest railway union. He said the government needed to have real discussions with the unions before “everything falls apart.”

More than 200,000 workers and students joined in protests around the country, about 48,000 of them in Paris, according to a consortium of journalism organizations that hired a company to estimate crowd sizes to avoid relying on police estimates.

The student presence in Thursday’s strike was an echo of France’s historic protests of 1968, which were led by students and began on the same day, March 22, 50 years ago. Those strikes started in French universities and were quickly joined by union members and others, bringing the country to a standstill and forcing reforms in many sectors.

This time, the unions have complained that the Macron government has moved ahead with its plans without true consultation or compromise.

“We are obviously keeping a listening attitude, but also a very big determination to pursue the transformation,” said Benjamin Griveaux, a government spokesman, after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

One poll this week painted a conflicted picture of public opinion, with most people supporting the demonstrations but also favoring the government’s reform projects. Another found that nearly 3 of every 4 people in France believed that the Macron government’s policy overhauls were unjust, but that almost half saw the overhaul of the railway system as warranted.

Official estimates Thursday said the strikes affected 40 percent of intercity trains and 30 percent of flights.

The protests Thursday were initially scheduled by civil servants angered by salary freezes and by Macron’s pledge to cut 120,000 jobs, as well as by government plans to introduce merit-based pay and use more private contractors. However, after elements of the proposed railway overhaul became clear, the unions decided to join.

While the largest protests were in Paris, there were also large turnouts in Marseille, Nantes, Lyon and other cities.

In Paris, public workers converged with railway workers at the Place de la Bastille, the traditional gathering site for political protests. There were minor skirmishes mostly involving masked protesters, who often represent anarchist groups and who on Thursday threw projectiles at the police.

The rail workers’ mood seemed at once boisterous and bleak. They played loud music, sang protest songs and set off so many smoke bombs that it was hard to see at times. Still, several said they had little hope that the government would pay attention, and many said Macron did not care about them.

“This is a message for Monsieur Macron: Keep the public services,” said Christian Boumard, 57, who came to the protest from Nantes, a union stronghold on the Atlantic coast.

“The railroads are a public service. When you attack the rail workers, you are attacking a public service,” said Boumard, who has worked for the rail company, known as the SNCF, for 37 years.

“The rich do not give to the poor, but public services give something back to them,” Boumard said. “This is a political battle: It is not to gain some small benefit, it is public services he is attacking.”

Laurence Michel, 48, joined the SNCF in 2008 through a program she said could well disappear with the government overhaul. When her husband, a rail worker, died, the company hired her as part of a support policy for its families.

“Our job isn’t attractive to young people anymore,” said Michel, from Rennes. “We have night shifts and work during weekends. We keep hearing that we are privileged, but I’d like Mr. Macron to come and see if he finds privileges in our everyday job.”

“Pass the reform, and the SNCF will slowly die,” she said.