Students and workers take to the street to defend public services in Lyon. Photo: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet Students and workers take to the street to defend public services in Lyon. Photo: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet

Across France, hundreds of thousands of people, spearheaded by combative rail workers, mobilise against Macron’s neoliberal assault on the public sector  

In the biggest mobilisation since last autumn’s mass rallies against French President Emmanuel Macron’s labour law ‘reforms’, on March 22 hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, students and pensioners joined striking railway workers on the streets in a thunderous blast of protest. Those who stopped work for the day included teachers, nurses, social care workers, and air traffic controllers, all out to defend not only jobs and conditions of work but the public sector more generally.

Estimates of the numbers of those joining rallies held in some 140 locations across the country vary between 323,000 (the ‘official’ tally) and 500,000, the figure issued by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the prinicipal trade union organiser of the action. In Paris, some 65,000 protestors (49,000 by police reckoning), headed up by massed ranks of boisterous, battle-ready cheminots (railway workers), marched from the Gare de l’Est to rally at the Place de la Bastille.  

Strike action, focused on the railways but extending into air traffic control, schools and other sectors, had a major disruptive impact. The state rail operator, SNCF, suffered calamitous disruption of its TGV (Trains Grands Vitesse) - its prestigious, lavishly funded high speed sector – along with effective non-functioning of train services in and around Paris. Traffic jam lengths on the Paris motorway system reportedly attained new benchmarks as commuters struggled to work.  

Strikes by air traffic controllers saw the cancellation of hundreds of flights, while thousands of primary schools across the country were forced to close for the day.

Solidarity with the day of action on the part of university and high school students resulted in the blockading of lycées as well as lively, inventive participation in the action.

Spinetta and the Cheminots

The provocation for the March 22 protest came in February, with the announcement by Edouard Philippe, Macron’s prime minister, of a package of ‘reforms’ aimed at the SNCF, France’s 80-year-old public sector railway operator.  In an echo of the infamous 1963 Beeching Report, which applied a wrecking ball to large swathes of Britain’s national rail network, the task of recommending changes geared to ‘modernising’ France’s railways was hawked out to an ‘expert’: in this case, former Air France Chief executive Jean-Cyril Spinetta. His wide-ranging remit was to assess the future of the rail sector in the context of SNCF’s ongoing indebtedness – and the requirement, under the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, to throw the domestic passenger market open to competition.

Spinetta’s report, handed over to the prime minister on February 15, zeroed in on predictable targets. In true Beeching style, it proposed a wholesale dismantling of regional and secondary lines as part of a ‘new model’ for rural transport. Advocating the restructuring of SNCF as a commercial company, the report also called for a ‘new social contract with SNCF employees: in effect the erasure of the statut de cheminot, a special standing gained through years of struggle which currently protects around 140,000 rail workers from being fired and protects their status as fonctionnaires (civil servants).

The government’s response to the Spinetti report has been to ‘soften’ or modify certain recommendations (for example, those regarding line closures) while adhering to those aimed at weakening rail worker status and protections. By late February speeches by Macron and Philippe clarified the situation beyond doubt: the goal was to smash, once and for all, the statut de cheminot, and with it the formidable organisational strength and reach of France’s railway workers.

To look back at the history of French working-class struggle is to find the cheminots repeatedly at the vanguard of action: a combative, well organised frontline, conscious of their class strength and ready to reinforce and sustain wider trade union and social movements.

Back in 1968, rail workers struck work in solidarity with the student uprising, their action relived and saluted in banners and placards carried by some of those participating in the March 22 day of action. In 1995, cheminots played a central role in the great wave of strikes that greeted prime minister Alain Juppé’s plan of attack against the public sector. In the context of weeks of national shutdown, culminating in a million-strong nationwide strike on December 12, Juppé was forced into humiliating retreat.

Macron’s war, the left’s unity

With his neoliberal agenda, Napoleonic pretensions, and anti-democratic preference for rule by ordinance, Macron no doubt hears the call of destiny in the battle currently shaping up. As if taking his inspiration from Thatcher’s war on the miners, the youthful president sees smashing the cheminots as stage one of a wider assault on France’s public sector, which currently comprises 5.4 million employees.

Macron has already proposed shedding 120,000 public sector posts, to be achieved partly through voluntary redundancy, along with a big jump in the level of contract workers (who already constitute roughly 20 percent of the public sector workforce).  The Jupiter of the Elysée Palace has decreed, in no uncertain terms, that no longer should the public sector be regarded as “a protected citadel.”

In this gamble, Macron appears to have been fortified by his success, last autumn, in forcing through labour law reforms (helped by his resort to rule-by-ordinance). He may also be banking on continuing divisions among his opponents in the trade union movement and the political left. But here he may have miscalculated. What was also on display in Paris and across France on March 22 was evidence of a coming together, a resurgence of unified action.

At a joint press conference held in downtown Paris on March 21, representatives of twelve left organisations came together to handle questions from journalists. Those taking turns at the mic included representatives of La France Insoumise, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), Europe Ecologie-Les-Verts, Ensemble and Generation-s (the new party formed by Benoît Hamon, former leader of the Parti Socialiste). All pledged the commitment of their organisations to unified action in defence of France’s public sector.

The following day, all twelve organisations were present in the streets, although marching separately. Much of the credit for this encouraging turn goes to Olivier Besancenot, former presidential candidate of the NPA and currently party spokesman.

At the trade union level, too, there is unity in the air. All four federations representing railway workers have been able to reach agreement on a strike schedule that promises to carry industrial action, and consequent disruption of the rail sector, into the heart of summer. A timetable of rolling two-day strikes (each followed by three days of normal functioning) has been announced, with April 3 as the start date. The crippling impact on France’s economy and everyday life may be such that even Jupiter may have cause to pause and ponder.   

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.