French student protests add to Macron's rail strike woes

AFP , Wednesday 4 Apr 2018

France demonstration
Students demonstrate with striking SNCF staff at Lille Flandres station on Wednesday 4 April, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

Growing protests at French universities on Wednesday added to pressure on President Emmanuel Macron over his sweeping reform agenda, as rail workers pressed on with rolling strikes that are causing havoc for millions of travellers.

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 plans to overhaul the heavily-indebted state rail operator SNCF.

In the meantime, students at two universities in Paris and Lyon blocked campuses in anger 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 which saw them join forces.

"I'm working for a May 2018," radical leftist and former presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot told France Inter radio on Wednesday.

Macron, 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.

After storming to power last May at the head of a new centrist party, he insists he has a mandate for change.

He managed to push through controversial labour reforms in October, but a series of protests against his various shake-ups have drawn tens of thousands onto the streets.

On Tuesday, Air France staff, garbage collectors and some energy workers staged separate walkouts along with train drivers, adding to a growing atmosphere of industrial 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.

Battle of wills 

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 level of cancellations a day earlier.

And the SNCF warned the walkouts would continue to have knock-on effects Thursday for France's 4.5 million daily rail users as staff struggle to get regional services running again as normal.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has told travellers to brace for "difficult days ahead".

But he insisted the government will press on with reforms which it says are needed to make the SNCF cheaper to operate as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

SNCF management said only a 29.7 percent of staff were taking part in the strike Wednesday compared to 33.9 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, and fear a looming restructuring of the SNCF as a publicly-owned company could ultimately see it privatised -- something ministers deny.

The battle of wills between Macron and rail unions has already earned comparisons with late British premier Margaret Thatcher's standoff with coal miners in the 1980s.

Students revolt 

Students are protesting against planned changes to entrance procedures at public universities that will see them set stricter requirements to tackle massive overcrowding and high dropout rates.

Students at universities from Paris to Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes have been shutting down or severely disrupting classes for weeks arguing the changes are an elitist attack on France's egalitarian principles.

Protesters at a second Parisian faculty, the Lettres de Sorbonne-Universite, blocked the campus on Wednesday, following students at the Lumiere Lyon 2 university in eastern France who joined the fray on Tuesday evening.

"The objective is that only knowledge compatible with the dominant ideology -- compatible with a market economy -- will get taught," read a statement from the Lyon students, who have occupied the main lecture hall.

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 kilometres (220 miles) 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, 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.

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