Ten months after he stormed from nowhere to seize the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron faces his sternest test yet as he seeks to cut the once hallowed privileges of rail workers and other public sector employees.
Undeterred by an 11 per cent slide in his approval ratings, Mr Macron is braving the fury of militant unions that have forced previous presidents into humiliating U-turns.
Emboldened by his successful labour reforms last year, Mr Macron is calculating that public opinion will shift in his favour. Polls show that 70 per cent of the public already back his rail reforms amid widespread dissatisfaction with train services. Many French people now accept that the country can no longer afford to spend more than 56 per cent of its GDP on the public sector.
The battle with the rail unions marks a decisive moment, comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with British miners in the 1980s. The unions have vowed to paralyse the country with strikes unless Mr Macron abandons his plans to end jobs for life and the right of the 260,000 workers of the debt-ridden, state-owned SNCF rail company to retire in their 50s.
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Other public sector unions are also threatening strikes as Mr Macron axes preferential pension arrangements to bring them into line with the private sector.
Profile | Emmanuel Macron
He dismissed the swings in his popularity as ephemeral and vowed to push forward with his reforms: “Some people are obsessed by [opinion polls], but what really counts is the work in depth you are doing for the country.”
But critics accuse Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker, of being “the president of the rich”. Pensioners are angry that tax reforms have reduced their income, his hardline stance on immigration has infuriated liberals, many young people are horrified at his plan to bring back national service and farmers who are discontent with low producer prices booed him at a recent agricultural show.
However, his promise to deport more migrants who fail to qualify for asylum has won over a surprisingly high number of Front National supporters.
Mr Macron won power promising to revive France’s long stagnant economy with taboo-breaking reforms. Growth is now about 2 per cent, but many people remain disappointed. Brice Teinturier of the Ipsos market research firm said: “The French are saying, ’employment is rising again, the economic indicators are good, but things aren’t any better for me’.”