Growing protests at French universities on Wednesday added to pressure on President Emmanuel Macron over his sweeping reforms, as rail workers pressed on with rolling strikes that are causing havoc for millions of travelers.
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 bid to overhaul state rail operator SNCF.
In the meantime, students at two universities in Paris and Lyon blocked faculty buildings in protest 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 that saw them join forces.
“I’m working for a May 2018,” radical leftist and former presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot told France Inter radio.
In Marseille, hundreds of demonstrators from different walks of life — retired dockers, postmen, students — staged a protest in defense of public services, which they fear Macron is seeking to dismantle.
“They are attacking the rail workers before moving on to other public sector workers,” said Philippe Laget, a CGT union official.
The president, a 40-year-old ex-investment banker, has vowed to reshape France with far-reaching reforms designed to increase economic growth and cut mounting public debt.
He managed to push through controversial labor reforms in October 2017, but a series of protests against his various shake-ups led to the biggest and most organized test of his resolve.
On Tuesday, Air France staff, garbage collectors and some energy workers staged separate walkouts along with train drivers, adding to a growing atmosphere of discontent.
“This is the start of a social power struggle almost unknown in France,” firebrand leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told a rail workers’ protest in Paris.
Mandate to ‘transform’ France
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the government was determined to push on with reforms of the heavily-indebted SNCF “until the very end.”
The strikes “must not stop the government from moving forward and carrying out the transformation for which we were elected,” he said.
Only one in seven high-speed trains and a fifth of regional trains were running Wednesday, with a third of Eurostar crossings to London called off — similar to the cancellations a day earlier.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who has warned of “difficult days ahead” for France’s 4.5 million daily train users, was forced to call off a trip to Mali to deal with the walkouts.
SNCF management said only 29.7 percent of staff were taking part in the strike Wednesday compared to 33.9 percent a day earlier, but unions have given much higher figures of 60 percent or more on the first day.
Unions oppose plans to strip new hires of guaranteed jobs for life and early retirement, part of efforts to make the SNCF cheaper to operate as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.
And they fear that plans to turn the SNCF into a publicly-owned company could ultimately see it privatized — something ministers deny.
The battle of wills, a test of how much influence France’s historically fearsome unions still hold, has already earned comparisons with late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s standoff with coal miners in the 1980s.
Students are protesting against planned changes to entrance procedures at public universities that will impose stricter requirements to tackle massive overcrowding and high dropout rates.
Sit-ins at universities from Paris to Bordeaux and Nantes have disrupted classes for weeks, with protesters arguing the changes are an attack on France’s egalitarian principles.
Two universities in Montpellier and Toulouse are currently entirely shut due to protests, while a second Parisian faculty, the Lettres de Sorbonne-Universite, and Lumiere Lyon 2 have now also joined the fray.
In the Paris region, the second day of train strikes prompted more morning gridlock as commuters took to the roads instead, with traffic website Sytadin reporting 350 kilometers of tailbacks — double the usual amount.
Commuters have been forced to set off hours early, work from home or find other solutions such as carpools due to disruption that is set to cause months of problems for French businesses.
At Lille station in northeastern France, the 56-year-old Marc Cornille was worried the disruption could cost him his temporary job contract.
“I understand their demands, just not the way they’re going about it,” he said of the rail workers.