French Austerity Program Provokes Growing Wave of Worker and Student Strikes

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University students and railroad and airline workers are escalating protests and strikes in France against President Macron’s austerity plans

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Labor and student unrest has been gripping France this past week, and it looks like it will only intensify in the weeks ahead. Workers of the state-run SNCF railway, Air France employees, and now University students have all become involved in strikes and protests. The specific demands and issues of each group vary, but their common denominator is resistance against government cutbacks.

It all began several weeks ago when SNCF railway workers announced a series of two-day rolling strikes over a period of three months. It’s a protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to eliminate employment security and early retirement opportunities, and to impose layoffs. Over 80 percent of France’s rail traffic was halted last Tuesday and Wednesday. President Macron has vowed to turn the SNCF into a profitable company and to reduce its debt. However, workers say it is a ploy to eventually privatize France’s rail system.

ANASSE KAZIB: Macron will fall. His mandate is at stake on this reform. He knows it. He knows it. He knows that he is launching an attack on the the leading bastion of the proletariat, and he knows too well that going after railway workers can become a snowball. He could be a French Margaret Thatcher, but he also could face the end of his mandate. The man known as ‘Mr. Reform’ will in the end go down like all those before him, who have achieved nothing.

GREG WILPERT: Meanwhile, Air France unions joined the actions and launched a wave of work stoppages grounding at least a quarter of all of the airline’s flights this week. Air France unions are demanding a 6 percent pay raise, but so far the airline offered a raise of only one percent, which is below inflation. Then university students who have been engaged in low-level actions against new university entrance requirements decided to intensify their protests this week as well. Students are opposed to a new merit-based admission system.

The new system is designed to reduce the number of students, also in the name of cutbacks. Students say that this would only further exacerbate inequality in France.

NICOLAS: On April 3, we were 1800 at the general assembly to vote predominantly in favor of the blockade. So it is approved by many other students who are protesting against selective university entry. It also allows us to have a place to gather and claim back our university in order to discuss this mobilization, but also to invite railway workers and the sectors who are fighting.

GREG WILPERT: The university blockades incidents took place at universities in at least ten major cities across France. This past week of combined student and worker protests and strikes reminds people not only of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of Britain’s rail system in the 1980s, but also of France’s legendary May 1968. Back then, almost exactly 50 years ago, students and workers united in a general strike against the government of the time. However, while May 68 was a movement against France’s entire political and social order, these protests now are more limited against Macron’s neoliberal social and economic program.