by Clare BYRNE Thousands of French public sector workers angered by Emmanuel Macron's plans to freeze their pay and eliminate 120,000 jobs went on strike Tuesday, amplifying opposition to the president's cost-cutting, pro-business agenda.
Nine unions representing 5.4 million public workers joined together to call for a day of nationwide strikes and demonstrations to show their “profound disagreement” with Macron’s bid to transform the gargantuan public service.
The protests are the fourth round of demonstrations in France since September aimed at forcing the 39-year-old president to row back on his reforms, with the government’s response being closely watched by European allies and investors.
There has been vocal criticism of Macron’s policies from his opponents, but so far fewer have taken to the streets than against previous governments forced into major U-turns by crippling industrial action and protests.
“There are a lot of people mobilised… we need to hear these worries,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner told France 2 television on Tuesday in conciliatory comments toward the demonstrators.
But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe signalled on Monday that the government had no plans to change course, though telling public sector workers they were “not at all unappreciated”.
Tuesday’s day of action was the first time in a decade that all nine public sector unions have issued a joint strike call, but there appeared to be limited disruption on the national railways or in schools.
Only 17.5 percent of teachers walked out, according to the education ministry, while trade unions put the figure higher at 35-50 percent.
Around 30 percent of flights in and out of Paris and other major cities were cancelled as a precaution. Hospital unions also called on medical staff to walk off the job for the first time since 2009.
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 ($529 million).
– ‘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 percent. DM
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