The British often like to joke about the French propensity to take industrial action. The SNCF, the state rail provider in France, began a series of 18 two-day strikes on April 3 leaving just one in eight long-distance journeys in operation and affecting the Eurostar. The French rail strikes have been caused by Emmanuel Macron’s plans to tackle the losses at SNCF and prepare for competition from 2020. The clash however, is symbolic.

The world is consistently fascinated by Emmanuel Macron. His first year in the Elysée has largely been spent outside of Paris visiting has made 17 presidential trips to 21 states since his inauguration on 14 May 2017 as part of a diplomatic world tour. France is less impressed. The forty-year-old President has an approval rating below that of Donald Trump in the US despite a strengthening economy and falling unemployment rate. The protests represent a defining early moment in his presidency.

Derailing the President

Macron views the rail sector as being in need of reform. In a country with a national retirement age of 62, train drivers can retire at 50. They enjoy free train tickets, free health care and, in some cases, subsidised housing. France encourages what the Economist calls a “job-for-life culture” and its GDP spending on the public sector is 56% – the highest in the EU.

Macron’s reforms to the labour code in September made it easier to hire and fire workers, though its critics argued that he did not go far enough. The French President was elected on a mandate to redress the economic and statutory incongruity between the French public and private sector, increase market competition and encourage foreign investment. Foreign investment in France recently hit a 10-year high.

L’exception française

According to a poll conducted on March 31 by IFOP, a polling firm, for Le Journal du Dimanche, 46% of the population support those striking, up from 42% two weeks prior. It is a dangerous fight for Macron to take on. Previous presidents and proposed reforms have been defeated at the hands of the powerful trade unions, most famously in 1995 when Prime Minister Alain Juppé was forced to back down when confronted by the unions.

french rail strikes alain juppe
These French rail strikes have reminded some of Alain Juppé’s fall from grace after mass general strikes in 1995. Photo credit: R.D. Ward / US Department of Defence / Wikipedia Commons

Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande all campaigned for varying degrees of reform but crucially they all left political room to manoeuvre and compromised when faced with the potentially toxic prospect of strikes. Emmanuel Macron seems increasingly allergic to compromise.

It is a risky strategy. Macron has taken on one of the most militant unions with a narrow mind. At the time of writing, his approval ratings stands at at a relatively low 39%; respondents cited reasons such as “arrogance”, his portrayal as a “president for the wealthy” as well as the speed of reforms to justify their negative impression.

The majority of his En Marche! movement in the French legislature is deceptive though unequivocally important for passing the reforms. He himself was only elected by approximately 20 million ballots in 2017, far less than half of France’s 47 million strong electorate.

The vociferous rail unions are spoiling for a fight and have tried to recruit private sector unions to join the protests. The strikes are also running parallel to student protests against university reforms. The atmosphere tastes like the pivotal protests of May 68 that began at a university in Nanterre and spread like wildfire across France, ultimately forcing Charles de Gaulle to flee to Germany and call a parliamentary election.  

french rail strikes macron
In facing down the French rail strikes, Macron has been said to be having his “Thatcher moment”. Photo credit: Kremlin.ru

Now or never?

The context however, is significantly different. Public satisfaction with the railway service is waning and France boasts just two universities in the world’s top 100. While famed for having the fastest trains in Europe and a prestigious higher education system, Macron and his supporters fell that standards are slipping in the French public sector. The reality of commuting from outside Paris is expensive, uncomfortably-crowded and unreliable. Macron senses his time to strike. Moreover, the protests are not even close in scale to those that took place in 1960s.

The president has remained relatively quiet, allowing Édouard Philippe, his Prime Minister, to speak to the media. Philippe has repeatedly focussed on respecting the right to strike while acknowledging the public who are affected. The reforms will likely pass due to the  dominance of En Marche! in the state legislative chambers.

Given Macron’s inherent determination and willingness to fight for what he believes – manifest in an address to the French farmers in February – Macron looks unlikely to compromise. Commentators are calling these French rail strikes the French President’s “Thatcher moment” in reference to the 1984-5 miners’ strikes in the UK during which the British Prime Minister held firm and whose economic and political legacy still shapes the framework of the nation.

A symbolic stand-off

The strikes and President Macron’s response to them certainly feel symbolic. If he triumphs against one of the most powerful unions in France he will essentially hold a carte blanche for reform. The outcome however hangs is in the balance. Idealised abroad, domestically-divisive, the Napoleonic President has marvelled the world, seeking to restore France’s position as a key decision-maker on the global stage. Often, as was the case for Napoleon, ambition can lead to downfall and sometimes trouble lies closest to home.

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