Saint-Dié-des-Vosges (France) (AFP) – President Emmanuel Macron faced booing from hostile railway workers Wednesday while touring a town in eastern France, as spreading student protests and the fourth round of crippling train strikes in a month piled on the pressure.
The 40-year-old leader is facing the biggest test of his nearly 12-month presidency as train drivers, public sector workers and students protest against his economic reforms.
On a visit to the town of Saint-Die-des-Vosges, Macron was booed and whistled by angry trade unionists from the hard-left CGT which is spearheading attempts to resist the centrist’s pro-business agenda.
“We can have differences, but we need to respect each other,” Macron said while calling on staff of the SNCF rail operator to end their rolling strikes, which began at the start of the month and could continue until late June.
Only one in three high-speed TGVs and one in four inter-city trains were running Wednesday, with the same number expected on Thursday when a new round of mass demonstrations and stoppages have been called nationwide.
Civil servants, workers in state retirement homes and students have been urged to demonstrate for the second time in a month after previous protests drew hundreds of thousands onto the streets.
Unlike last time, the Paris metro faces disruption, while a union leader in the energy sector warned of “targeted” power cuts as part of a campaign to push for the creation of a new national energy provider.
On Tuesday, students occupied the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, the latest campus blocked by protesters over higher education reforms that will make university admission more selective.
“Sciences Po students against Macron’s dictatorship,” read a banner hung from a window of the university, which has groomed generations of French politicians including Macron himself.
– Standing firm –
Macron has insisted he will not back down on his bid to shake up the big-spending public sector.
He defended other unpopular measures Wednesday such as increasing taxes on pensioners and cutting the speed limit on major roads to 80 kilometres an hour (50 miles an hour) in a bid to reduce deadly accidents.
“They are in the street because they don’t want anything to change,” Macron told a passerby. “If I give ground on the 80 km/h, if I give way to protesting rail workers… that’s the end of it.
“We won’t be able to hold on, we won’t be able to do anything.”
A new poll by Ifop-Fiducial suggested 58 percent of French people were unhappy with his presidency, broadly in line with surveys showing his approval rating at around 40 percent.
Ahead of a trip to Germany Thursday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron is also facing resistance to his proposals to reform the European Union, where Berlin has cooled on some of his plans.
– Rail bill passed –
There are, however, some reasons for Macron to feel optimistic.
Wednesday’s train strikes were less disruptive than on previous days and the SNCF rail operator said a sharply-reduced 19.8 percent of staff were taking part, down from 34 percent at the start of April.
On Tuesday, the lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new rail reform bill, which will scrap jobs-for-life and early retirement guarantees for new SNCF hires from January 1, 2020.
The bill sailed through with 454 votes for and 80 against, as expected given that Macron’s Republic on the Move party has a large majority.
The bill now moves to the Senate and the government hopes it can be passed quickly to take the wind out of the protesters’ sails.
“Democracy is calling on the unions to find a solution that moves things forward, not backwards,” Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told France 2 television.
At the University of Strasbourg in eastern France, a poll of 16,000 students found 72 percent wanted teaching to resume, bolstering the government’s view that a minority of agitators are behind the sit-ins.
Only four out of 70 universities are completely blocked and nine other university faculties have suffered disruption.
The various protests are still a far cry from the mass public sector strikes that forced a rightwing government to withdraw pension reforms in 1995, or May 1968 when a revolt by students and workers turned Paris into a battleground.