French public sector workers strike against Macron's reforms

Paris (AFP) –


French public sector employees joined rail workers in striking Tuesday to protest overhauls proposed by President Emmanuel Macron, calling them an "attack" by the centrist leader against civil services as well as their economic security.

It is the third day of major stoppages and demonstrations by public-sector employees since voters last year elected Macron, who has pledged to reduce public spending, trim jobs and reform large parts of the vast French state.

All unions representing civil servants have backed Tuesday's strike, a show of unity which was last seen around 10 years ago.

Their walkout affected schools and daycare centres, flights and some energy infrastructure, while public transport was also disrupted as some workers took part ahead of the next round of two-day strikes at national rail operator SNCF starting late Tuesday.

"Thanks to the civil service, all of the unions in this country will be together," said labour leader Bernadette Groison from the FSU union. "That shows how high the stakes are."

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

It has already maintained a pay freeze while 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 also fear that 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.

Striking police officers also snarled traffic on the ring road surrounding Paris to defend their status and retirement benefits.

But 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.

Just 40 percent said they supported the movement.

- Not backing down -

The poll results largely coincide with those concerning the rail reform, which has sparked one of the longest strike sequences ever on the network.

Just 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 vowed to be uncompromising and 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.

But 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 areas of the country.

Around 130-140 demonstrations have been organised by civil servants across the country on Tuesday.

Unions hope turnout will be higher than the last day of action on March 22 when an estimated 300,000 gathered nationwide.

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".