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Strikes in France: 200,000 march through streets to protest Macron's reforms

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Strikes in France: 200,000 march through streets to protest Macron's reforms
People throw stones at police in Paris. Photo: AFP
21:57 CET+01:00
An estimated 200,000 protesters took to the streets of France on Thursday in a showdown between trade unions and President Emmanuel Macron that could be decisive for his reform agenda.

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Seven unions representing staff in the public sector led strikes and protests, and a third of railway workers walked out to join the demonstrations against 40-year-old Macron's bid to shake up the French state.

Around 200,000 people demonstrated nationwide, according to police figures, including 49,000 in Paris. The CGT union, the biggest in the public sector, estimated the total turnout at over half a million.

The numbers were smaller than in previous demonstrations against Macron's labour reforms as well as the anti labour reform demos that took place under his predecessor François Hollande.

Riot police clashed with hooded youths believed to be far left anarchists who had infiltrated the march through Paris on Thursday afternoon. There were also clashes in the western city of Nantes.

The tweet below shows the police water cannons in use in Bastille in Paris. 

Similarly the tweet below shows the scenes of destruction in central Paris while describing the situation as "still very tense" near Bastille. 

As a result of the strikes hundreds of flights and train services were cancelled and scores of schools and creches closed their doors on Thursday. The strikes also expected to affect hospitals, libraries and other public services.

The greater Paris region of Île-de-France was particularly badly hit by the industrial action. Although Metro services were running as normal, RER and Transilien commuter trains were severely disrupted.

The director general of Transilien services, which link Paris to surrounding areas advised passengers to simply avoid travel if possible. Those who had no choice but to head in to work faced major headaches.

Baptiste Colin, a 22-year-old engineering student who demonstrated in Paris, accused the government of wanting to "destroy public services" -- a sentiment echoed by Marine Bruneau, a municipal worker.

"They seem to consider that in France... the private sector can do everything and that we don't need public servants like me. But France needs us. If we're not here, the country is not ok," she said.

Around France TGV services were severely impacted by the strike with around 60 percent of trains cancelled. Just one in four regular mainline Intercité trains across the country operated and only half of the regional TER trains.

Eurostar was also forced to cancel several trains.

There was similar disruption at airports, particularly in Paris where some 30 percent of flights were cancelled at Orly, CDG and Beauvais airports.

Budget airline Ryanair was also forced to cancel over 100 flights to, from and over France, which left the airline's chiefs furious.

"Ryanair call on the French Government and European Commission to take immediate action to prevent the skies over Europe being closed yet again," read a statement from the airline.

Ryanair’s Kenny Jacobs said:“Yet again, thousands of European consumers will have their travel plans disrupted by a tiny group of French ATC unions going on strike this week"

Macron was reported to have told advisors in private this week that he was feeling "serene" as the day of action drew near, adding that it was "not a cause for panic", according to the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine.

Public opinion is largely behind his bid to remove some job privileges for new hires at debt-laden state railway operator SNCF and many analysts believe the reform effort is a crucial test of strength.

"If Emmanuel Macron gives ground on such a symbolic reform and so close to his election (last May) his image of a reformer will be destroyed," veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel said last week.

 

The walk-out by air traffic controllers also caused disruption at airports around France with 34 flights to and from Nice airport cancelled and 40 at Toulouse-Blagnac.

Laurent Berger, head of the more moderate CFDT union told France's RTL radio: "The government must listen to public service workers.

"Either the government listens or civil service workers will be extremely mobilized".

Unions told The Local that while they regretted the impact of the strikes on travellers their cause justified the travel chaos.

"These strikes are always difficult and we know that is not good for transport users and the public in general," Yves Veyrier a spokesman for the union Force Ouvriere told The Local.

"We would prefer not to strike and would prefer to have a debate with the government, but we have asked Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and now Emmanuel Macron and we are still waiting for it," he said.

"People must understand, this is a last resort and this is about the future of France's public service for everyone."

Thursday's major strike won't be the end of the travel headaches for the public. On Friday Air France staff will stage a walk-out as they demand a 6 percent pay rise across the board, which will see scores of flights cancelled again and rail workers have announced a wave of rolling two day strikes throughout the spring as they aim to pressure the government into ditching its planned reform of the rail sector.

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