France's Macron to face public sector protests on March 22

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over the course of his five-year term. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French railways workers were urged Friday (Feb 16) to join civil servants in a nationwide day of protest next month against President Emmanuel Macron's reform agenda in what will be a major test of strength.

The leader of the country's biggest public-sector trade union, the CGT, called the rail protests on March 22 over plans by the government to remove some of the privileges enjoyed by workers on the train network.

The trigger was a major report recommending an overhaul of the debt-laden and loss-making SNCF rail system which was submitted to Macron's centrist government on Thursday.

"Rail workers will organise a national protest day on March 22 and of course rail workers will defend public services, their jobs and their status," the head of the CGT Philippe Martinez told France Inter radio.

Civil servants are also set to demonstrate the same day over a proposed shake up that will see some workers offered redundancy packages and higher use of short-term contracts.

Macron wants to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over the course of his five-year term.

Previous protests

The 40-year-old leader faced a first series of demonstrations led by the CGT in September and October last year over his reforms to the labour code, which were unsuccessful in preventing the changes becoming law.

The victory for the government led to questions about whether the once fearsome French trade unions are still able to mobilise large crowds and cripple public services.

The demonstrations on March 22 coincide with the 50th anniversary of a major student protest at a university near Paris in 1968, a precursor to the nationwide strikes that roiled the country in May of the same year.

Large demonstrations and strikes are a common feature of French democracy and have repeatedly forced governments into policy U-turns in the past, but Macron has vowed to press ahead.

The most sensitive part of the rail report submitted on Thursday suggests that new railway workers should not be given the same historic employment privileges as their colleagues, such as early retirement and life-long job security.

"It's not illogical to say that if in the future you take on new employees they should have a pension that is the same as for other French people," the head of Macron's Republic on the Move party, Christophe Castaner, said Friday.

Castaner said that on average France's 140,000 rail workers retire aged 57.5 years, compared with 62 in the private sector. Train drivers retire in their early 50s.

The rail reform report, prepared by the former head of Air France Jean-Cyril Spinetta, proposed 43 changes including the shutting of smaller loss-making rail links in rural areas.

He said that the state of the railways was "worrying" and highlighted annual losses of 3 billion euros (S$4.91 billion).

The rail network's ever rising debt will reach 50 billion euros in 2018, the report said.

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