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French public servants in the street over Macron reforms

French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he sits in front of a flag of the European Union during an open debate on Europe on October 10, 2017 at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. Macron takes his push for deeper European integration to Germany, where he and German Chancellor will open the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt. / AFP PHOTO / LUDOVIC MARIN

More than 100,000 French public sector workers angered by Emmanuel Macron’s plans to freeze their pay and eliminate jobs went on strike Tuesday, amplifying opposition to the president’s cost-cutting, pro-business agenda.

Nine unions representing 5.4 million public workers issued a joint strike call to show their “profound disagreement” with Macron’s bid to transform the gargantuan public service.

The protests were the fourth round of demonstrations in France since September aimed at forcing the 39-year-old president to row back on his reforms, with the government’s response being closely watched by European allies and investors.

Over 100,000 people took to the streets in Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, Nice and other cities on Tuesday, according to the authorities, while the hard-left CGT union estimated turnout nationally at 400,000.

“Macron is deepening the social divide,” read a banner waved by a protester in Paris while others took aim at his recent comments calling opponents of his reforms “slackers” and urging protesting trade unionists to get a job.

But there appeared to be relatively limited disruption to the national railways or schools and only a minority of flights were cancelled.

There has been vocal criticism of Macron’s policies from his opponents, but the protest movement has so far not reached the scale seen as necessary to force the government into major U-turns, analysts say.

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner adopted a conciliatory tone.

“There are a lot of people mobilised… we need to hear these concerns,” he told France 2 television.

But on Monday Prime Minister Edouard Philippe signalled that the government had no plans to change course, while assuring public sector workers they were “not at all unappreciated”.

Tuesday’s day of action was the first time in a decade that all nine public sector unions have issued a joint strike call.

It was also the first time since 2009 that hospital unions called on their members to walk off the job.

Among teachers, however, the strike rate was limited to 17.5 percent, according to the education ministry. Trade unions put the figure at 35-50 percent.

Around 30 percent of flights in and out of Paris and other major cities were cancelled as a precaution.

The government has announced plans to cut spending by 16 billion euros ($18 billion) next year by, among other things, freezing civil servants’ pay and cutting nearly 1,600 public jobs — the first swing of the axe in his plan to cut 120,000 posts by 2022.

Karine Jouglas, a police officer demonstrating in Nice, said spending cuts had left officers with “trash cans for squad cars”.

Philippe Martinez, head of France’s biggest union CGT, said civil servants were tired of being portrayed as “slackers and profiteers.”

“There are too few employees and they want to cut more,” he complained.

The demonstrations come as Macron — painted as a “president of the rich” by leftist critics — continues to take heat for a string of comments seen as derogatory towards discontented workers.

He has also alienated regional governments, who are fuming at having their funding from Paris cut by 450 million euros ($529 million).

– ‘Facing down the street’ –
The hard-left CGT union and radical leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon are hoping Tuesday’s strikes will inject new momentum into their protest movement and spur other disgruntled groups to join the fray.

Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling agency said public sector workers mostly backed Macron in the presidential election in May but “they feel they are being made to pay for the government’s policies”.

But unless other workers down tools, or young people angered by cuts to student housing subsidies take to the streets, Macron will continue to have free rein to implement his agenda, said Dabi.

“What is positive for Emmanuel Macron is that he is seen as facing down the street and implementing his programme,” he added.

In a sign that the president has the upper hand for now, his poll numbers have recovered slightly after a dramatic slide this summer to around 30 percent.

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