PARIS (Reuters) — Tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers joined forces to march against French President Emmanuel Macron's reforms on Thursday, causing widespread travel disruption and bringing brief clashes with police in some cities.
While the vast majority of around 180 demonstrations nationwide were peaceful, scuffles erupted between police and hooded young protesters in Paris and the western city of Nantes, where security forces fired tear gas and water cannon.
It was the first time public sector workers, ranging from air-traffic controllers to civil servants, had joined with rail workers and pensioners to protest over the economic reforms Macron has sought to introduce since he took office last May.
"We're here against the government, which is only helping the rich. What this government is doing is simply not OK," said 65-year old pensioner Françoise Rauch, a former SNCF rail operator who said he was also protesting tax hikes on pensions.
In Paris, protesters denounced Macron's proposals to trim some retirement benefits, overhaul unemployment insurance and shake up the highly indebted state-run rail company SNCF, with many chanting: "Together, let's derail Macron!"
But only about one in ten central government workers walked off the job, down from 13 per cent in an October strike, a government source said, in a sign that unions may still be struggling to raise the street against the young president.
Turnout was much stronger amid railway staff, who grounded 60 per cent of fast trains and 75 per cent of inter-city trains, while 30 per cent of flights to and from Paris airports were canceled.
"It's a real mess," said Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to Paris' suburbs and had more than an hour's wait for the next.
Public sector workers are angry with plans to cut the public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022, including via voluntary redundancies, and oppose the introduction of merit-based pay.
Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees and automatic annual pay rises.
While rail workers have planned a three-month rolling strike starting April 3, public sector workers have no plans yet for further action, but they will meet next week to consider it.
About 14.5 per cent of teachers walked off the job, the education ministry said, closing many primary schools. Electricity generation dropped by more than three gigawatts, the equivalent of three nuclear reactors, as those workers joined the strike in sympathy.
Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of public sector workers and introducing merit-based pay.
That has led the government, which overhauled labour laws last year and is crafting other reforms, to say it will stand by its plans, while keeping a close eye on protests.
On Tuesday, following a retirees' march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by a tax hike, in a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can make exceptions.
"What we need to avoid is that all the grievances fuse together, as was the case in 1995," a government official said, referring to France's biggest strike in decades, which forced the government at the time to withdraw reforms after striking public and private sector workers received huge popular support.
Government officials may also have in mind the fact that what would turn into the May 1968 revolt — throwing France into turmoil for weeks — started 50 years ago to the day.
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