en-fr  French Labor Strikes Pose a Test to Macron’s Overhauls
French Labor Strikes Pose a Test to Macron’s Overhauls.

Rail workers, teachers and other public-sector workers are striking, while protests are planned in Paris.

By William Horobin, The Wall Street Journal, Updated, March 22, 2018.
PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron got a taste Thursday of paralyzing strikes and protests he is set to face in the coming months as his economic overhauls collide with deeply entrenched constituencies in France’s public sector.

Many schools have closed, less than half of France’s trains are running, some flights have been canceled and unions have said they would stage walkouts at power plants.

Tens of thousands of protesters converged on Paris, ranging from rail workers protesting Mr. Macron’s plan to peel back their privileges to civil servants striking over pay and conditions.

The disruption marks the start of several months of planned strikes and walkouts. Rail workers plan to strike two days a week from April to the end of June.

The strikes are a test of Mr. Macron’s nerve as he seeks to transform France’s economic model with multiple overhauls. A rebound of the French economy drove an acceleration in the eurozone last year, but France is still lumbered with high unemployment and Mr. Macron’s government says it must continue with overhauls of business regulations, welfare and labor rules to keep up the momentum.

Protesters in France are balking at the 40-year-old leader’s push for greater flexibility and his challenge to so-called “insiders,” whose protections and safety nets he says are costly for state finances, discourage risk taking and take opportunities away from the young and unemployed.

Laurent Berger, the head of the reformist CFDT union, said on French radio Thursday that rail workers and civil servants are being “stigmatized” by the government. “People don’t understand the choices that are being made,” Mr. Berger said.

Overcoming the resistance from rail workers and civil servants would burnish Mr. Macron’s reputation as a bold, rapid reformer compared with his predecessors. If he is forced to scale back his plans, economists warn that France risks slipping back into inertia, hamstringing its growth prospects compared with other European countries.

For the private sector, Mr. Macron has already decreed more-flexible labor laws and slashed taxes that weigh on investment. Those overhauls proceeded smoothly compared with past attempts, largely because unions representing private-sector employees were too divided to mobilize workers.

But civil servants and rail workers at state-owned operator SNCF are powerful, more-cohesive constituencies in France that have for decades resisted attempts to tinker with their privileged status. With around 4 million trips taken on French trains every day, rail strikes can wreak havoc upon the French economy.

The public-sector overhauls aim for greater labor market flexibility by cutting back on jobs for life, using more contract workers and introducing a higher dose of performance-related pay for the country’s 5.5 million civil servants.

Mr. Macron also wants to put an end to the recruitment of rail workers on lifelong contracts akin to those enjoyed by civil servants. The move—which Mr. Macron is set to pass by decree—aims to prepare the heavily indebted SNCF for competition in the rail sector.

For now, surveys show a majority of French people don’t support rail workers’ plans for prolonged strikes. But some union leaders are calling for private-sector workers and retirees angry about tax increases to join the demonstrations. If different protests fuse into the broader backlash, Mr. Macron could find himself isolated and forced into retreat.

“We need more days of protests to broaden the movement,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the leftist CGT union said Thursday.

Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister who famously backtracked on labor overhauls amid street protests in 2006, warned Mr. Macron could send the country into a state of shock by ordering overhauls too fast and on too many fronts at once.

“Doing reforms, sleeping four hours a night, working with a very small team; it’s possible for a few months but at some point, it becomes difficult,” Mr. de Villepin said on French television Sunday. “There’s a risk of becoming solitary, arrogant and cut off from some of reality.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/french-labor-strikes-pose-a-test-to-macrons-overhauls-1521711814
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French Labor Strikes Pose a Test to Macron’s Overhauls.
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By William Horobin, The Wall Street Journal, Updated, March 22, 2018.
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French Labor Strikes Pose a Test to Macron’s Overhauls.

Rail workers, teachers and other public-sector workers are striking, while protests are planned in Paris.

By William Horobin, The Wall Street Journal, Updated, March 22, 2018.
PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron got a taste Thursday of paralyzing strikes and protests he is set to face in the coming months as his economic overhauls collide with deeply entrenched constituencies in France’s public sector.

Many schools have closed, less than half of France’s trains are running, some flights have been canceled and unions have said they would stage walkouts at power plants.

Tens of thousands of protesters converged on Paris, ranging from rail workers protesting Mr. Macron’s plan to peel back their privileges to civil servants striking over pay and conditions.

The disruption marks the start of several months of planned strikes and walkouts. Rail workers plan to strike two days a week from April to the end of June.

The strikes are a test of Mr. Macron’s nerve as he seeks to transform France’s economic model with multiple overhauls. A rebound of the French economy drove an acceleration in the eurozone last year, but France is still lumbered with high unemployment and Mr. Macron’s government says it must continue with overhauls of business regulations, welfare and labor rules to keep up the momentum.

Protesters in France are balking at the 40-year-old leader’s push for greater flexibility and his challenge to so-called “insiders,” whose protections and safety nets he says are costly for state finances, discourage risk taking and take opportunities away from the young and unemployed.

Laurent Berger, the head of the reformist CFDT union, said on French radio Thursday that rail workers and civil servants are being “stigmatized” by the government. “People don’t understand the choices that are being made,” Mr. Berger said.

Overcoming the resistance from rail workers and civil servants would burnish Mr. Macron’s reputation as a bold, rapid reformer compared with his predecessors. If he is forced to scale back his plans, economists warn that France risks slipping back into inertia, hamstringing its growth prospects compared with other European countries.

For the private sector, Mr. Macron has already decreed more-flexible labor laws and slashed taxes that weigh on investment. Those overhauls proceeded smoothly compared with past attempts, largely because unions representing private-sector employees were too divided to mobilize workers.

But civil servants and rail workers at state-owned operator SNCF are powerful, more-cohesive constituencies in France that have for decades resisted attempts to tinker with their privileged status. With around 4 million trips taken on French trains every day, rail strikes can wreak havoc upon the French economy.

The public-sector overhauls aim for greater labor market flexibility by cutting back on jobs for life, using more contract workers and introducing a higher dose of performance-related pay for the country’s 5.5 million civil servants.

Mr. Macron also wants to put an end to the recruitment of rail workers on lifelong contracts akin to those enjoyed by civil servants. The move—which Mr. Macron is set to pass by decree—aims to prepare the heavily indebted SNCF for competition in the rail sector.

For now, surveys show a majority of French people don’t support rail workers’ plans for prolonged strikes. But some union leaders are calling for private-sector workers and retirees angry about tax increases to join the demonstrations. If different protests fuse into the broader backlash, Mr. Macron could find himself isolated and forced into retreat.

“We need more days of protests to broaden the movement,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the leftist CGT union said Thursday.

Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister who famously backtracked on labor overhauls amid street protests in 2006, warned Mr. Macron could send the country into a state of shock by ordering overhauls too fast and on too many fronts at once.

“Doing reforms, sleeping four hours a night, working with a very small team; it’s possible for a few months but at some point, it becomes difficult,” Mr. de Villepin said on French television Sunday. “There’s a risk of becoming solitary, arrogant and cut off from some of reality.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/french-labor-strikes-pose-a-test-to-macrons-overhauls-1521711814