French rail workers have launched a strike that is stirring memories of past political convulsions and which is President Macron’s toughest test yet.

A man wears a mask of French President Emmanuel Macron during a demonstration by workers in Paris, 3 April 2018 (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Strikes at the French national rail service and state airline, along with protests by students and health workers, have prompted comparisons with May 1968, when the economy was paralyzed and the State came close to collapse.

On April 3, rail workers began a series of twice-weekly stoppages scheduled to run until June 28 unless the government drops plans to restructure the colossally indebted network, known by its initials in French as the SNCF.

The workers want to safeguard their conditions of employment, notably the right to retire on a full pension five to 10 years earlier than other people and a guarantee against being laid off. The unions have also attacked proposals to open the railways to competition and to outsource maintenance work to private companies.

President Emmanuel Macron said in a television interview last week that the SNCF would remain state-owned and the conditions of current rail workers would not change, only those of future employees. But he insisted on the benefits of competition and declared that he would “go all the way because we need these reforms.”

France faces 12 weeks of damaging, unpopular rail stoppages that will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the biggest and most violent social upheaval since World War Two.

But as Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the General Confederation of Labor (the CFT in French), acknowledged in an interview with Le Monde newspaper: “The two periods cannot be compared…. The world of work then was not quite the same as today.”

Rail workers acquired a mythic status in the union movement.

That is an understatement. Historians differ about the causes of May ’68, but few would argue that they were even mostly economic.

France was at the height of “les trente glorieuses,” the 30-year period of unprecedented prosperity when the standard of living rose to one of the highest in the world. The rate of unemployment was 2.5 percent, although the number of people out of work had edged above 500,000, which the government then thought dangerously high.

Today, more than 2.5 million are out of work. The jobless rate is 8.6 percent and remains above 20 percent for people aged 18-25. Many workers are on fixed-term contracts with an uncertain future.

Meanwhile, the CGT’s membership has plunged from 2.3 million to fewer than 680,000.

Moreover, the union no longer enjoys the political support it had then, when it was still structurally linked to the Communist Party, which regularly scored above 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections.

Support for the party flowed in part from its war-time resistance role, which included acts of sabotage by rail workers who acquired an almost mythic status in the union movement.

But by the end of the century, the party’s support had collapsed, and in elections which followed Macron’s winning the presidency last year, it won only 10 of the 577 seats in parliament.

France’s other main union, the CFDT, is closer to the Socialist Party, which lost 251 of its 280 seats in the political tsunami that swept Macron’s newly created movement, République en Marche, to power on the slogan “neither right nor left.”

Macron hopes to bring together reformist tendencies.

The CGT’s strategy, Martinez said, is “to converge the struggles” of public-sector workers. He would like the traditional Labor Day march on May 1 to be a kind of referendum on the society Macron hopes to create.

The CFDT leader, Laurent Berger, dismisses convergence “because it does not produce concrete results.” But in a recent interview, he said: “We are at a point where the executive will have to clarify its vision of social democracy and the role of the unions.”

They have, in particular, demanded that the State take on the SNCF’s debt, which stands at 55 billion euros ($68 billion), a third of it accumulated in the past eight years due partly to the over-ambitious expansion of high-speed rail services.

The debt is estimated at 2 percent of gross domestic product. France’s public deficit last year fell to 2.6 percent of GDP and for the first time in 10 years is below the European Union’s limit of 3 percent.

Macron, the only enthusiastically pro-EU candidate in last year’s presidential election, was evasive when asked how the government would solve the problem, saying that it would take over the debt “progressively, as reforms are put in place.”

Changing the employment conditions of future rail workers is in line with reforms which the government pushed through late last year to encourage firms to hire new workers by making it easier to fire them. But the government has not said how that will help alleviate the SNCF’s financial problems.

Rather than May 1968, the date with which comparisons can usefully be made is November 1995, when the unions launched a crippling month-long strike by transport workers that forced then prime minister Alain Juppé to abandon plans to overhaul France’s social security system.

Philosopher Joël Roman, writing recently in Le Monde, said the strike of 1995 led to “a deep split on the Left, between a reformist tendency concerned, above all, with rebuilding the welfare state to meet contemporary challenges” and an anti-EU movement centered on the CGT.

Macron hopes to bring together reformist tendencies on the left and the right. The latest rail strike will be a test of his success.

Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.

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