PARIS • Police scuffled with protesters in Paris and fired tear gas and water cannon in the western city of Nantes as strikes broke out across France yesterday in a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron's economic reforms.
Train conductors, teachers and air traffic controllers walked out to join more than 150 mostly peaceful marches in cities and towns - the first time public sector workers have joined rail staff in protests since Mr Macron came to office in May last year.
"It's a real mess," said Mr Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to the suburbs and waited over an hour for the next one at Paris' Gare du Nord station.
Sixty per cent of fast trains, 75 per cent of inter-city trains and 30 per cent of flights to and from Paris airports were cancelled because of the strikes.
About 13 per cent of teachers walked off the job, the Education Ministry said, causing many primary schools to close.
Electricity generation dropped by over three gigawatts, the equivalent of the power of three nuclear reactors, as workers joined the strike, stoking government fears that the work stoppages could spread.
Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly.
MR JEAN-MARC CANON, of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest unions in France.
It's a real mess.
MR DIDIER SAMBA, a Paris commuter who missed his morning train and had to wait over an hour for the next one.
Public sector workers are angry over plans to cut the sector's headcount by 120,000 by 2022 - including via voluntary redundancies - and over the introduction of merit-based pay.
Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and generous early retirement packages.
"Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly," said Mr Jean-Marc Canon of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest unions.
While rail workers 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.
"Let me tell you that public sector workers are very mobilised," Mr Laurent Berger, head of France's largest union CFDT, told RTL radio.
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 a series of other reforms to unemployment insurance and training, 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 that the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of seven million pensioners concerned over a tax hike, 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 after striking public and private sector workers received huge popular support.
"The situation is very different from 1995. At the time, there was a big discrepancy between what the government promised during the elections and what it eventually did," said the official.
Government officials may also have in mind the fact that the May 1968 revolt that convulsed France started with a student protest at Nanterre University, which few at the time expected to trigger the unrest that blocked France for weeks.