French civil servants, rail staff strike in test for Macron

France's President Emmanuel Macron gives a speech to unveil his strategy to promote French language as part of the International Francophonie Day, before members of the French Academy and other guests, at the French Institute in Paris, France, March 20, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

Thomson Reuters

By Ingrid Melander and Caroline Pailliez

PARIS (Reuters) - Teachers, hospital nurses, train conductors and airline controllers will walk off the job and take to the streets across France on Thursday in a test of public anger with President Emmanuel Macron's reform drive.

While unions have struggled to rally crowds over the past months, this is the first protest against Macron bringing together civil servants and railway staff, potentially spelling trouble for the government ahead of a rolling rail strike.

"Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly," said Jean-Marc Canon of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest civil servants' unions.

Some 150 protest marches are scheduled, including two rallies starting at around 1300 GMT in Paris. Strikes are expected to lead to the cancellation of 60 percent of fast trains, 75 percent of inter-city trains and about 30 percent of Paris airports' flights.

Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the civil servants' strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of civil servants and introducing merit-based pay.

That has led the government, which overhauled labor laws last year and is also crafting a series of other sensitive reforms including of unemployment insurance, to say it will stand by its plans, while keeping a close eye on protests.

On Tuesday, following a retirees' march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by a tax hike, in a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can make exceptions.

"What we need to avoid is that all the grievances fuse together, as was the case in 1995," a government official said, referring to France's biggest strike in decades, which forced the government of the time to withdraw reforms after striking public and private sector workers received huge popular support.

"The situation is very different from 1995. At the time there was a big discrepancy with what the government had promised during the elections and what they eventually did."

Civil servants are angry with plans to cut public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022, including with voluntary redundancies, and introduce other reforms include merit-based pay.

Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and generous early retirement.++Unionisation rates

For a graphic of Unionisation rates, click

(Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Richard Balmforth)

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