French Voters Turn On Macron: Violence Erupts On Paris Streets As Workers Protest Labor Reforms

That didn't take long.

Less than a year after French President Emmanuel Macron rode a wave of reformist optimism to the Elysee Palace, France's vast body of public-sector workers have turned against the country's youngest-ever president as his attempts to loosen France's restrictive labor laws have met with an outraged response from France's 5.4 million civil servants and workers on its state-run rail system.

Rail workers are using Thursday's demonstrations as the start of a prolonged strike that could last until June. Specifically, rail workers are protesting Macron's plan to cut some of the special employment rights for rail workers. From April 3 until June 28, rail unions have planned strikes for two days out of every five.

Macron famously prevailed in a runoff election last Spring, where he defeated National Front candidate Marine Le Pen after founding his own centrist, reform-oriented political movement called En Marche - or "Forward!" in English.

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For his part, Macron is hoping the public will respect him for standing firm, and maybe even that the broader public will find the strikes exasperating.

The strike was expected to lead to the cancellation of 60% of fast trains, 75% of inter-city trains and about 30% of Paris airports' flights throughout the day.

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A Les Echos poll showed just over half of French people backed Thursday’s strike - but an even larger majority are pushing for the reforms, including cutting the number of public sector workers, what the Express described as a "paradox."

"We are going to continue reforming France in depth ... with the certitude that our country needs this transformation to make up for the ground lost over previous decades," Macron told reporters during a trip to India last week.

As the Guardian explains, Thursday’s strike date was deliberately chosen to echo the start of nationwide protests in 1968 that led to the country’s biggest ever strikes and the notorious street battles between police and students of May 1968.

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As Express reported, students clashed with riot police on Thursday, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Unions had previously struggled to unite crowds against Macron's reforms. But Thursday was the first protest that brought together both public sector workers, students and railway workers. 

"It's a real mess this morning," Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to the suburbs and had more than one hour's wait for the next, said at Paris' Gare du Nord station.

According to the Unions, one in four primary schools were on strike, while electricity generation dropped by over three gigawatts (GW), the equivalent of three nuclear reactors, as gas and electricity sector workers joined the strike. Some 150 protest marches were scheduled - including two rallies starting at around 1300 GMT in Paris.

 

 

Of course, some of the hostility is due to Macron going back on his campaign promises for better recognition and remuneration. He now seeks to slash budgets, rely more on contract workers, introduce merit-based pay and voluntary redundancies to cut the number of public workers by 120,000 over five years.

The government, which led an overhaul of labor laws last year and is working on a series of other sensitive reforms to programs like unemployment insurance, says it will stand by its plans - though they will keep a close eye on protests.

Though he has promised to maintain a steady hand, Macron will be watching the protests with what we imagine would be a sense of foreboding. Thursday's strike, and the government's reaction, will be a test, said Laurent Berger, the head of France's largest union, CFDT.

"Either they (the government) listen to us and it will have been just a warning shot, or they don't listen to us and then, let me tell you that public sector workers are very mobilised," he told RTL radio.