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article imageFrench public sector workers strike against Macron's reforms

By Bertille OSSEY-WOISARD (AFP)     May 22, 2018 in World

From air traffic controllers and street sweepers to librarians and teachers, French public-sector employees Tuesday joined rail workers in striking to protest reforms planned by President Emmanuel Macron, calling them an "attack" against state services.

It was the third day of stoppages and demonstrations by public workers since last year's sweeping election win by Macron, who has pledged to reduce spending, trim jobs and overhaul large parts of the vast French state.

All unions representing civil servants backed Tuesday's strike, a show of unity last seen around 10 years ago, although turnout at demonstrations and disruption appeared to be modest by past French standards.

The walkout affected schools and daycare centres, flights and some energy infrastructure, while public transport was also hit as some workers took part the day before the next round of two-day strikes at national rail operator SNCF.

Demonstrators burned an effigy of President Emmanuel Macron during the protests in Paris on Tuesday
Demonstrators burned an effigy of President Emmanuel Macron during the protests in Paris on Tuesday
Eric FEFERBERG, AFP

"It's a message in defence of public services, which is to say a different conception of French society than that held by the president," CGT union leader Philippe Martinez said at a march by thousands of people in Paris.

The independent consultancy Occurrence estimated that 16,400 people demonstrated in Paris, with many braving a late-afternoon downpour, while authorities put the number at 15,000. Unions have put the turnout around at least 30,000.

The interior ministry said 139,000 people took to the streets in some 180 demonstrations across the country.

Those figures were far from the nearly 50,000 who marched in the French capital during the last day of public service action on March 22, when an estimated 300,000 rallied nationwide.

The education ministry reported that only about 16 percent of primary school teachers went on strike, and 10 percent of secondary school teachers.

The Paris march was also the scene of smashed shop windows and other vandalism as hooded, black-clad youths, some wearing ski masks, scuffled with police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

Such youths have infiltrated a number of protests in recent weeks, with more than 100 detained in Paris on the traditional May Day march after torching a McDonald's restaurant and several vehicles.

Several thousand protestors also gathered in other cities, including about 4,500 in Lyon according to police, answering the call of the unions.

- Limited support -

Pascale Lestideau, a hospital nurse in Brest, said budget cuts had made her working conditions "unbearable".

"It makes it impossible for us to care for people in line with our values, and that's very, very hard for us," she said.

Public-sector workers on strike fear Macron's pledge to reduce spending  trim jobs and overhaul...
Public-sector workers on strike fear Macron's pledge to reduce spending, trim jobs and overhaul large parts of the vast French state
Zakaria ABDELKAFI, AFP

Macron's centrist government plans public sector reforms next year which would lead to the greater use of contract workers for some services and a cut of 120,000 state jobs by 2022 out of 5.6 million.

It has already maintained a pay freeze, and Olivier Dussopt, the minister in charge of France's public service, is preparing cost-cutting measures he has said will be "more or less disruptive".

Many civil servants fear the government plans to scrap their special status and job-for-life privileges, a measure that has already been announced for new recruits on the state railways, the SNCF.

Surveys suggest the movement is struggling to garner widespread support, with 49 percent saying they did not back the striking public workers in a ViaVoice poll published by French daily Le Figaro.

Another 40 percent said they supported the movement.

- Popular tide? -

Riot police clash with demonstrators in Paris during a nationwide day of protest by French public se...
Riot police clash with demonstrators in Paris during a nationwide day of protest by French public sector employees against proposed government reforms. Around 139,000 people demonstrated nationwide, according to the interior ministry
Zakaria ABDELKAFI, AFP

The poll results are largely in line with findings concerning the rail reform, which has sparked one of the longest strike sequences ever on the network.

Some 42 percent of respondents said the SNCF strike was justified in an Ifop survey published Sunday by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, compared with 58 percent who said it was not.

Rail workers have been striking every two days out of five since April 3 and will begin a new round of stoppages on Tuesday night. The strikes have widely affected high-speed services and commuter trains.

But Macron has promised to deliver on his rail reform and cuts to France's public spending, which was part of his election manifesto.

France has one of the biggest public sectors in Europe relative to the size of its economy. The country has not balanced its budget since the 1970s, leading to a public debt equivalent to nearly 100 percent of GDP.

The unions accuse Macron, a former investment banker, of wanting to destroy public services -- a vital source of employment and a pillar of communal life in many parts of the country.

The protests come ahead of a "popular tide" called for Saturday by dozens of associations, leftist parties and unions to support the striking workers and make Macron "back down".

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