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Emmanuel Macron rarely resists displaying his debating skills in front of an angry crowd. But when the French president visited a hospital ward in Rouen with his wife Brigitte on Thursday, he thought this was a moment to enter via the back door.
Outside the front entrance was a crowd of several dozen union protesters in orange vests, holding banners of the hardline CGT union, which spearheaded a nationwide rail strike this week. Also in attendance were medical staff worrying about a planned overhaul of public hospitals. Youths, some hiding their faces with bandannas, joined in to protest against a plan to allow more selection in state universities. Surrounded by anti-riot police, they chanted their disappointment: “Macron, chicken, we’re waiting for you.” It has been an unusually turbulent week for France and its 40-year-old leader — one that could make or break his reformist presidency, which has yet to reach its first anniversary. In his push to fix some of the core state-run infrastructure of France’s economy, the president has got into a sprawling and messy battle with labour unions, sparked above all by his government’s planned reform of SNCF, France’s cherished yet indebted rail operator.
Yet in spite of his apparent reluctance in Rouen to confront protesters directly, it is a battle that Mr Macron has welcomed — proof, as he would see it, of his determination to succeed where predecessors have failed and impose a suite of reforms that he believes are vital to remake France. There’s a fashionable word these days: concertation. But in fact it means ‘you listen and do what I tell you to do’ Philippe Martinez, CGT leader “It’s a confrontation with the old world that is critical to the cultural revolution he is pushing for,” said Dominique Reynie, head of Paris-based think-tank Fondapol.
“Macron is looking for strong symbols that will act as catalysts for more reforms. It’s a message to the French citizens, that they have the capacity to move on from a bygone era.” Failing, Mr Reynie warned, would embolden discontent in other sectors. “If he doesn’t succeed in giving the impression that he won, his presidency is dead,” he said.
It was predictable that railway workforce — les cheminots — would react vehemently against government plans to end their century-old special status, including life-long employment, retirement as early as 52 and free family travel. Unions started a three-month rolling strike, designed to disrupt train services two working days out of five every week, causing misery for millions of commuters. But for Mr Macron, these perks have become symbols of the undue “privileges” that casts of insiders have secured over decades and that weigh on the economy and fuel resentment of “outsiders”.
This has been a constant thread in the youthful leader’s political ascent, whether extending Sunday trading, supporting ride-hailing apps such as Uber against the taxi lobby, or tearing down barriers to entry in sectors such as coach travel or legal services while economy minister under his Socialist predecessor François Hollande. The last time French rail workers rose against a plan to curb their special rights, it ended badly for the governing class. In 1995, Alain Juppé became the most despised prime minister of the Fifth Republic and had to backtrack, weakening the centre-right presidency of Jacques Chirac: two years later Mr Chirac triggered early legislative elections that led to Socialist victory. Mr Macron’s government says SNCF must be readied for the opening of its markets to competition by 2021, a move long agreed with the EU. To do so, it is seeking ways to lighten the SNCF’s €46bn debt load and revisit decades of ill-judged investments.
“We’re paying 22 per cent more than 10 years ago to fund the SNCF’s operations and its debt and deficit are growing,” Edouard Philippe, prime minister — and former Juppé protégé — said this week, as he urged unions to join rounds of “concertations”. That cut no ice with Philippe Martinez, the mustachioed CGT leader.
“There’s a fashionable word these days: concertation,” he snapped. “But in fact it means you ‘listen and do what I tell you to do’.” Mr Martinez’s words captured a truth about Mr Macron’s ability to ignore some protests. While his approval ratings have fallen below 50 per cent he has a solid majority in parliament that has allowed him to pass contentious legislation, including a jobs market bill last year. More is to come: the government is seeking to curtail unions’ power in co-managing the nationwide professional training scheme and is ruffling feathers with a plan to revisit France’s unemployment scheme and healthcare funding. Political analysts say Mr Macron’s method of rushing through many reforms also raises the risks that discontent will snowball. So far public opinion seems to vindicate the idea that 2018 is no longer 1995, when people showed solidarity with the cheminots.
After a decade of financial crisis, mounting public debt and a declining rail service quality, three out of four French people said they back the SNCF reform and two out of three supported changes to rail workers’ status, according to a BVA survey. Mr Macron is also making sure the cheminots are not the only insiders to be targeted: his government this week also unveiled a plan to cut the number of parliamentarians — also unpopular in France — by 30 per cent.
But the public mood can easily shift. More than any other public services, rail in France is deeply associated with the strength of the state and even Republican ideals. The investment programme started in 1878 by Charles de Freycinet, engineer and minister of public works, was an early pillar of the Third Republic and still forms the core of France’s rail network. There is legitimate fear that reforms of SNCF could trigger closures of lossmaking regional lines. “The SNCF is about regional cohesion, epic social battles, it’s emotional,” Mr Reynie said. “Macron needs to be swift. If the strikes last too long, people will start having second thoughts and say ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do this’.”
This article first appeared on www.ft.com
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