French student protests add to rail strike woes

Growing protests at French universities yesterday added to pressure on President Emmanuel Macron

Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images

Growing protests at French universities yesterday added to pressure on President Emmanuel Macron over his sweeping reform agenda, as rail workers pressed on with rolling strikes, causing havoc for millions of travellers.

Train drivers and other railway staff waged a second day of strikes set to continue two days out of every five until June 28, unless Macron backs down on his plans to overhaul the heavily indebted state rail operator SNCF.

In the meantime, students at two universities in Paris and Lyon blocked campuses in anger at Macron’s plans to make university entry more selective, joining a slew of nationwide sit-ins that have disrupted classes for weeks.

French unions and left-wingers have consistently called for students and workers to come together to resist Macron in a re-run 50 years later of the famed May 1968 anti-government demonstrations which saw them join forces.

Former investment banker Macron has vowed to reshape France with far-reaching reforms designed to increase economic growth and cut mounting public debt.

After storming to power last May at the head of a new centrist party, he insists he has a mandate for change. He managed to push through controversial labour reforms in October, but a series of protests against his various shake-ups have drawn tens of thousands onto the streets.

On Tuesday Air France staff, refuse collectors and some energy workers staged separate walkouts along with train drivers, adding to a growing atmosphere of industrial discontent.
Only one in seven high-speed trains and a fifth of regional trains were running yesterday, with a third of Eurostar crossings to London called off – similar to the level of cancellations a day earlier.

And the SNCF warned the walkouts would continue to have knock-on effects today for France’s 4.5 million daily rail users as staff struggle to get regional services running again as normal.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has told travellers to brace for difficult days ahead, but insisted the government would press on with reforms which it says are needed to make the SNCF cheaper to operate as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

SNCF management said only 29.7% of staff were taking part in the strike yesterday compared to 33.9% a day earlier, but unions have given much higher figures of 60% or more on the first day.

Unions oppose plans to strip newly hired staff of guaranteed jobs for life and early retirement, and fear a looming restructuring of the SNCF as a publicly owned company could ultimately see it privatised – something ministers deny.

Students are protesting against planned changes to entrance procedures at public universities which will see them set stricter requirements to tackle massive overcrowding and high dropout rates.

Students at universities across the country have been shutting down or severely disrupting classes for weeks, arguing the changes are an elitist attack on France’s egalitarian principles.