PARIS — It started several weeks ago at refineries. Then it spread to nuclear plants. And finally, on Tuesday, railway and postal workers, nurses, some teachers, and even high school students across France, at least for the day, joined a snowballing strike that has become the biggest test so far of President Emmanuel Macron’s second term.
The widening strike came on the heels of a large march against rising costs of living held in Paris on Sunday, and it increases pressure on Macron’s government, which is already embattled in Parliament, where opposition parties are refusing to pass the budget.
Macron is now struggling to mollify anger on three different fronts — in factories, on the streets, and in Parliament — before it coalesces into major social unrest. That could threaten his agenda, including plans for a contentious pensions overhaul, as he seeks a direction for his new term.
“It’s been five years that we’ve faced cuts to our social welfare system,” Annie Dally, a 55-year-old elementary schoolteacher, said in the middle of a boisterous, colorful union march that stretched for miles, snaking its way through Paris’ Left Bank on Tuesday.
Pointing out groups of protesting students, immigrant groups, gay teachers, retired seniors, and workers from various unions, Dally, wearing stickers asking for wage increases and early retirement, said: “We’re all in the same struggle.”
The original strikes at refineries across the country have left about a quarter of the pumps across the country fully or partly dry. While Macron promised the situation would return to normal this week, with his government issuing back-to-work orders and pushing the unions and gas companies to negotiate, lines at gas stations around Paris continued on Tuesday, adding to the frustration among drivers and other commuters.
Hotel owners complained of canceled reservations and worried, should the strike continue much longer, they would lose more bookings during the two-week All Saints’ holiday, which begins this weekend.
The oil workers’ original call for wage increases to keep up with rising inflation has captured underlying concerns about the country’s economic inequalities and mounting bills for working families.
Macron’s government has spent nearly 100 billion euros ($98 billion) since November to subsidize energy bills for households and businesses, but inflation has pushed up the costs of many basics in French supermarkets, from frozen meat to tissues.
Government officials have also been issuing conflicting messages about the strikes. While Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told Parliament on Tuesday that “it is unacceptable that a minority continues to block the country,” the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, acknowledged the same day “a problem of salaries” in France and called for wage increases.
The Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest union, which has been leading the strikes, said more than 150 demonstrations were held across France on Tuesday. Many left-wing politicians, wearing their red, white, and blue sashes, joined in, looking to harness the social unrest to increase pressure on the government.
“A strike, a march, a protest,” Alma Dufour, a lawmaker from the hard-left party France Unbowed, said as she marched among protesters in Paris. “We need to keep the dynamic going.”
Dufour, who represents an area in Normandy, where several refineries have been hit by strikes, said her party was considering contributing to strike pay and organizing another march to keep the momentum going.
While left-wing politicians and striking union leaders called for mass mobilization and said rising anger in the country reflected an “autumn of discontent,” Tuesday’s strike was less disruptive to the capital than had been feared.
Many bus and train trips were canceled, but the scene at the busy Saint-Lazare train station in Paris felt no more hectic than usual. If anything, the railway staff on hand to answer questions outnumbered commuters.
Bruno Verlay left his home three hours earlier than usual to make sure he was on time for his job as a security guard in the city’s financial district. But in the end, he found the trip smooth.
“I am so used to strikes,” said Verlay, 58, “I’m immune.”
Many high school students joined the protests, with students at the Hélène Boucher high school, in the east of the capital, barricading themselves behind large green garbage cans and holding signs denouncing recent changes in education policy, warning that students’ lives had become more precarious, or protesting police violence.
“More teachers, fewer cops!” they chanted Tuesday morning.
Tuesday’s strikes coincided with efforts this week by Macron’s government to get its budget through Parliament. The last legislative elections in June left Macron short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of Parliament.
Legislators are threatening to vote down the spending bill. So Macron’s government is likely to use special constitutional powers to push it through without a vote. Olivier Véran, the government’s spokesman, said it would “probably” do so on Wednesday.
Étienne Ollion, a sociologist at the Polytechnique engineering school who specializes in French parliamentary life, said the mechanism, allowed under France’s 1958 Constitution, was “a bit of an authoritarian measure.” Though the mechanism had been used 60 times since its introduction, he said, Macron’s lack of a parliamentary majority and the current climate of social unrest could make it a more delicate move.
“It could have an effect on the mobilizations,” Ollion said, referring to the strikes and protests, adding that protesters might see use of the budget mechanism as “an attempt to avoid confronting the reality of the situation.”
Using such constitutional powers would also let members of the opposition put forward no-confidence motions, which leftist and far-right groups in Parliament have already promised to do.
But Ollion said the risk of a government collapse “is relatively limited,” because the main center-right opposition seems reluctant to join in and because the left and far right appear unwilling to back one another’s no-confidence motion.
The unions are also treading a fine line in their confrontation with the government. Polls suggest support for the strikes is declining, with an increasing number of French around the country frustrated by their consequences, particularly drivers and people in the hospitality business.
Laurent Duc’s hotel in Lyon was down to a miserable 20% occupancy on Tuesday because of last-minute cancellations, with people worrying they wouldn’t be able to fill up their tanks or get there by train, he said.
“We suffered so much in our industry over the past two years — we were forced to close,” said Duc, who represents the nation’s largest hospitality association, including owners of hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes across the country.
“These people got all their wages,” he said of the refinery workers. “I don’t know how I will pay my staff.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Source : OmanObserver