PARIS (REUTERS, AFP) - French public sector workers went on strike on Tuesday (Oct 10) against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to cull jobs and toughen pay conditions, forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights and disrupting school activities.
Civil servants, teachers and nurses marched through cities across France, from Toulouse in the south to Strasbourg in the east, before the day’s biggest rally in Paris. It is the first time in a decade that all unions representing more than 5 million public workers have rallied behind a protest call.
But as the Paris rally got underway, the number of protesters appeared low. Turnout will be an important indicator of public appetite for protest against Macron’s social and economic reforms, which the former investment banker says are needed to unlock economic growth and put public finances on a more sustainable footing.
Protests last month against labour law reform that were led by private sector unions failed to persuade Macron to change policy course, but the French labour movement has traditionally been more muscular in the public sector.
“We want to make our voices heard after months and months of attacks against the public sector and its workers,” said Mylene Jacquot, head of the civil servants’ federation at the moderate CFDT, France’s biggest trade union.
“In particular, we want to force the government to make good on its promise regarding our spending power.”
Strike notices were lodged in schools, hospitals, airports and government ministries over plans to axe 120,000 jobs, freeze pay and reduce sick leave compensation. The civil aviation authority said 30 per cent of flights at airports nationwide had been cancelled but there was no disruption on the rail network. The Ministry of Education said fewer than one in five teachers were on strike.
Macron, 39, has come under fire in recent days from political opponents and the unions for treating workers with contempt after he was recorded describing a group of workers at a struggling factory as “kicking up a bloody mess”.
That misstep came weeks after he called those who resisted reform “slackers”. As crowds gathered near Paris’s Place de la Republique, protesters held aloft a placard with portraits of Macron, his prime minister and finance minister reading: “The ones kicking up the bloody mess.”
Unions have been divided over Macron’s reforms so far, with only the Communist Party-rooted CGT spearheading street demonstrations against the loosening of employment laws.
In Lyon, Force Ouvriere union boss Jean-Claude Mailly said he would not support the CGT’s call for the labour law decrees to be scrapped after weeks of negotiations between government and unions. But he said there would be other battles to fight with a united front.
“There are other issues ahead: unemployment insurance, pension reform, the matter of public services,” Mailly said.
The biggest demonstration was set to take place in Paris in the afternoon.
"The government does not seem to have taken the full measure of the deep malaise among public sector workers," Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France's second-biggest union, told Les Echos business daily on Monday.
"They are suffering from being seen merely as a budgetary constraint and not as beneficial," he said.
The demonstrations come as Macron - painted as a "president of the rich" by leftist critics - continues to take heat for a string of derogatory comments about discontented workers.
Pensioners and truck drivers are among those who have demonstrated in the past month. Regional governments are also fuming at having their funding from Paris cut by 450 million euros.
'Facing down the street'
The hard-left CGT union and radical leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon are hoping Tuesday's strikes will inject new momentum into their protest movement and spur other disgruntled groups to join the fray.
Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling agency said public sector workers saw themselves as sacrificial lambs.
After giving Macron their backing in the presidential election "they feel they are being made to pay for the government's policies", Dabi told AFP.
Topping their grievances are Macron's plans to freeze their pay, increase their taxes and cut nearly 1,600 public sector jobs in 2018 - the first swing of the axe in his plan to cut 120,000 posts by 2022.
But unless other workers down tools, or young people angered by cuts to student housing subsidies take to the streets, Macron will continue to have free rein to implement his agenda, said Dabi.
"What is positive for Emmanuel Macron is that he is seen as facing down the street and implementing his programme," he added.
In a sign that the president has the upper hand for now, his poll numbers have recovered slightly after a dramatic slide this summer to around 30 per cent.