PARIS — An estimated 200,000 protesters took to the streets of France on Thursday in a showdown between trade unions and President Emmanuel Macron that could be decisive for his reform agenda.
Seven unions representing staff in the public sector led strikes and protests, and a third of railway workers walked out to join the demonstrations against 40-year-old Macron’s bid to shake up the French state.
Around 200,000 people demonstrated nationwide, according to police figures, including 49,000 in Paris. The CGT union, the biggest in the public sector, estimated the total turnout at over half a million.
Fewer than half of the country’s high-speed TGV trains were running and flights, schools, daycare centres, libraries and other public services such as rubbish collection were also affected.
Baptiste Colin, a 22-year-old engineering student who demonstrated in Paris, accused the government of wanting to "destroy public services" -- a sentiment echoed by Marine Bruneau, a municipal worker.
"They seem to consider that in France... the private sector can do everything and that we don’t need public servants like me. But France needs us. If we’re not here, the country is not ok," she said.
Police fired teargas and water cannon in central Paris during sporadic clashes between security forces and groups of masked youths who appeared to be far-left anarchists.
But while commuters faced problems in some areas, particularly in the suburbs of Paris, the impact of the strikes was low by historic French standards.
March 22 had been chosen deliberately to echo the start of student protests in 1968 that paralysed the country and culminated in notorious street battles between police and demonstrators in May of that year.
Thousands turned out for protests in major cities such as Marseille, Lyon and Nantes. The numbers nationwide were similar to a previous public sector demonstration last October.
But they were far off the giant demonstrations over the last 25 years, such as 1995, 2003 or 2010 when more than a million people took to the streets on each occasion.
CGT union head Philippe Martinez hailed the "strong mobilisation" adding, on Cnews, that "the ball is now in the government’s court".
The union, in a statement, called for further industrial action on April 19.
Political scientist Dominique Reynie from Sciences Po university in Paris said estimated turn-out of 50,000 in the capital was a "stinging failure. (But) that doesn’t mean that we won’t have more people in the future."
Macron was reported to have told advisors in private this week that he was feeling "serene" as the day of action drew near, adding that it was "not a cause for panic", according to the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine.
Public opinion is largely behind his bid to remove some job privileges for new hires at debt-laden state railway operator SNCF and many analysts believe the reform effort is a crucial test of strength.
"If Emmanuel Macron gives ground on such a symbolic reform and so close to his election (last May) his image of a reformer will be destroyed," veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel said last week.
Macron’s plans to shake up the civil service meanwhile come as no surprise, with the ex-investment banker having pledged to cut 120,000 jobs and streamline the giant state apparatus while campaigning last year.
A long battle?
Thursday’s strikes sounded the start of months of planned protests by railworkers, who have announced stoppages on two days out of every five between April and June.
"For the unions, the objective today was to convey the sense that there is anger rising around the country," Chloe Morin from the left-wing Jean-Jaures Foundation told AFP, adding that the success of their confrontation with Macron "will depend on their ability to mobilise people and get public opinion behind them".
France’s once fearsome unions have regularly forced governments into policy U-turns in the past, but Macron and his ministers have vowed not to yield and Morin said she saw little reason to believe the government would change course.
Roughly a third of flights into and out of three Paris airports -- Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Beauvais -- were cancelled because of a strike by air traffic controllers.
The SNCF said that 35.4 percent of employees were on strike, meaning just two of every five high-speed TGV trains were running Thursday, and half of regional trains were cancelled.
A quarter of teachers walked off the job, according to the largest SNUipp-FSU union.
Macron’s approval rating is at 37 percent, according to a survey by the Ipsos polling group published Wednesday, with 55 percent holding a negative view of his presidency -- the highest level since the start of his term 10 months ago. — AFP