‘Privatisation is hell’: Protesting French rail workers defend their strikes

French rail workers spoke of their anger over the government's proposed reforms to France's national rail service as they took part in a day of mass protests on Thursday.

'Privatisation is hell': Protesting French rail workers defend their strikes
Rail workers protesting in Paris on Thursday. Photo: AFP
President Emmanuel Macron faced mass protests Thursday as trade unionists seek to galvanise striking train drivers, angry students and public sector workers and into a joint movement against his multi-pronged drive to overhaul the French economy.
The hard-line CGT union has urged the broad spectrum of groups opposed to Macron's overhauls to come together on the streets, with some left-wingers dreaming of a re-run of the huge May 1968 demonstrations that shook France half a century ago.
Pressure has been mounting on Macron nearly a year since the 40-year-old centrist swept to power, with a survey by Ifop-Fiducial released Wednesday suggesting that 58 percent of voters were unhappy with his presidency.
And on Thursday French rail workers didn't hold back when voicing their anger against the French president and his plans to reform France's national rail service, including the removal of the special status enjoyed by SNCF employees. 
“The money that the SNCF pulls in does not reach the employees at the bottom of the ladder. I have been working for the SNCF for seven years and I earn €1,400 [per month],” Stéphane, a 27-year-old maintenance worker from Val-de-Marne told The Local. “Our salaries have not increased for about 4 years, while working nights, weekends and holidays.”
Many stressed that it wasn't about protecting their own rights but the future of France's public rail service.  
“I am on strike to defend and preserve the public railway service,” Armand, a 50-year-old signalman in Paris told The Local. “Privatisation is hell. We never go on strike for pleasure. We are fighting for people to have a better service tomorrow.”
And others spoke of what they saw as the government's real reasons behind the reforms. 
Photo: AFP
“I understand the public's frustration but the reform is not profitable. They say that competition will open the market but it's a lie, their goal is to make money, it's not just a question of our status, it is a matter of public service, public service is in the service of the people,” maintenance worker in Val-de-Marne Damien Verdy, 28, told The Local. 
But despite workers taking to the streets on Thursday, unions have also struggled to muster public support for their opposition movements, in particular the strikes aimed at torpedoing the emblematic overhaul of the state rail operator SNCF.
“They are in the street because they don't want anything to change,” Macron said during a trip Wednesday to the eastern town of Saint-Die-des-Vosges, where he was booed by trade unionists.
Macron's leftwing critics accuse the business-friendly former investment banker of seeking to take a sledgehammer to public services, citing his pledge to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs over his five-year term.
Various groups have staged strikes and demonstrations against Macron over the past year, including a series of mass protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets.
Thursday will see an attempt at a joint show of force by anti-Macron groups, including students angered by plans to make university admissions more selective.
French workers union CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez (3rd L) takes part in a demonstration on April 19, 2018 in Paris. Photo: AFP
Unions at the Paris transport operator RATP said they would join Thursday's action — though services were barely affected in the morning — while energy-sector workers also pledged to participate.
If tradition holds, the first bout of summer weather across much of France may also swell the protesters' ranks.
But deeper unity has proven elusive, with Laurent Berger of the more moderate CFDT — France's largest union in terms of membership — refusing both the CGT's call to join the Thursday protests as well as a combined march for the traditional Labour Day show of strength on May 1.
“That's more of a political approach, which is not ours,” Berger told Public Senat television Thursday, refusing any “convergence of battles”.
The protests took place across the country, including a march through Paris that left the Montparnasse train station in the city's south at 2 pm (1200 GMT) before it made its way to the Place d'Italie towards the east.
Photo: AFP
Train strikes easing?
Public-sector workers have called their own day of strikes and demonstrations for May 22 to denounce salaries they say are failing to keep up with inflation.
Air France staff meanwhile went on strike Wednesday for a ninth day since February in a separate row over salaries.
Macron insisted in interviews last week, part of a media blitz ahead of his one-year anniversary, that he was elected on a mandate for change and that he was determined to see his reforms through.
“I'm doing what I said I would,” he told TF1 television.
But Macron may take heart in signs that the promised three months of rolling train strikes are weakening — though still causing havoc for the networks 4.5 million daily users.
The latest wave of rail strikes, two days out of every five, continue Thursday — but with a third of high-speed TGV trains running, compared with just one in eight when the strikes began at the start of the month.
On Wednesday, a sharply reduced 19.8 percent of rail staff took part in the strikes, according to the SNCF, though CGT chief Philippe Martinez said that was because many staff are away for the school holidays.
He insisted “a huge majority” of staff backed continuing with the strikes, due to go on until June 28, despite a series of polls suggesting that public opinion backs Macron on the rail reforms.
Meanwhile a poll of 16,000 students at the University of Strasbourg, one of several blocked campuses, found that 72 percent wanted teaching to resume, bolstering Macron's view that a minority are behind the sit-ins.
Just four of France's 70 universities remain blocked, with a court ordering protesters at the university in the southern city of Montpellier, where the movement started, to clear out immediately or face eviction.
But the student revolt caught hold Wednesday at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris — Macron's alma mater — against the plan to introduce admission criteria and student rankings, ending guaranteed admissions for anyone with a high school diploma.

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Students blockade Paris schools in election protest

Students blockaded five schools in Paris on Tuesday to demonstrate their political concerns ahead of the second round of the Presidential elections on Sunday.

Students blockade Paris schools in election protest

In addition to the five blockaded lycées, the université Paris 8 in Saint-Denis was closed “for security reasons”.

The students – who are too young to make their voices heard at the ballot box – were protesting against the options available to voters in the second round – where incumbent Emmanuel Macron takes on far-right leader Marine Le Pen – and follows earlier student protests at the Sorbonne.

Many were demonstrating in protest at what they saw as inadequate policies on climate change and social issues from both candidates in the final round of voting, as well as the lack of choice for the electorate.

“It is a continuation of what happened at the Sorbonne,” one student told AFP. “We want a third social round, because the two candidates qualified for the second round have no social or ecological programmes. 

“We want to give a new breath to this Fifth Republic a little at the end of the race.

“We are fed up with the fascist state. We are here against Marine Le Pen, against fascism, for the climate and against capitalism,” another student at the lycée Louis-le-Grand in the capital’s fifth arrondissement said.

“We have blocked all the entrances. We will stay there as long as possible.”

About 100 students blockaded the prestigious school. Some students chant slogans against the “Front National” – the former name of second-round candidate Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party.

The blockades ended peacefully at the end of the day.