March 22, 2018 / 9:29 AM / in 7 months

Trains, flights grounded as strikes challenge Macron across France

PARIS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers joined forces to march against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms on Thursday, causing widespread travel disruption and bringing brief clashes with police in some cities.

While the vast majority of around 180 demonstrations nationwide were peaceful, scuffles erupted between police and hooded young protesters in Paris and the western city of Nantes, where security forces fired tear gas and water cannon.

It was the first time public sector workers, ranging from air-traffic controllers to civil servants, had joined with rail workers and pensioners to protest over the economic reforms Macron has sought to introduce since he took office last May.

“We’re here against the government, which is only helping the rich. What this government is doing is simply not OK,” said 65-year-old pensioner Françoise Rauch, a former rail worker who said she was also protesting against higher tax on pensions.

About 323,000 public sectors walked off the job, according to the interior ministry. Unions put the figure at 500,000.

In Paris, protesters denounced Macron’s proposals to trim some retirement benefits, overhaul unemployment insurance and shake up the highly indebted state-run rail company SNCF, with some chanting: “Together, let’s derail Macron!”

But only 13 percent of central government workers walked off the job, down marginally from an October strike, the government said, in a sign that unions may still be struggling to raise the street against the president.

Turnout was much stronger amid railway staff, who halted 60 percent of fast trains and 75 percent of inter-city services, while 30 percent of flights to and from Paris airports were cancelled.

“It’s a real mess,” said Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to the Paris suburbs and had more than an hour’s wait for the next.

French riot police use water cannons during clashes with masked protesters attending a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Paris, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Public sector workers are angry with plans to cut the public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022, including via voluntary redundancies, and oppose the introduction of merit-based pay.

Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees and automatic annual pay rises.

While rail staff have planned a three-month rolling strike starting on April 3, public sector workers have no plans yet for further action, but they will meet next week to consider it.

About 13.5 percent of teachers walked off the job, the government said, closing many primary schools. Electricity generation dropped by more than three gigawatts, the equivalent of three nuclear reactors’ output, as power workers joined the strike in sympathy.

PARADOX

Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of public sector workers and introducing merit-based pay.

That has led the government, which overhauled labour laws last year and is crafting other reforms, to say it will stand by its plans while keeping a close eye on protests.

On Tuesday, following a retirees’ march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by the tax rise, in a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can make exceptions.

“What we need to avoid is that all the grievances fuse together, as was the case in 1995,” a government official said, referring to France’s biggest strike in decades, which forced the government at the time to withdraw reforms.

For a graphic on France's unionisation rates, click reut.rs/2pvVVak

Slideshow (22 Images)

Additional reporting by Arthur Connan, Richard Lough, Myriam Rivet, Bate Felix, Leigh Thomas and Julie Carriat in Paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Graphic by Leigh Thomas; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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