French trade union leader Jean-Claude Mailly has warned that ongoing conflict between the French government and the unions may turn into a national confrontation over President Emmanuel Macron’s economic programme.
Unions are holding two-day strikes every week for three months over the government’s European Union dictated marketisation and compulsory tendering policies for the SNCF state railway company.
Unlike last year’s piecemeal fight against Mr Macron’s liberalisation plans, union opposition is aligning, said the Force Ouvriere leader in Paris.
“The social atmosphere is changing. It’s like when the air gets a bit too dry, the slightest spark can set off a fire,” he suggested.
Besides the rolling SNCF rail strikes, tensions are growing in lower-profile conflicts over nursing home workers, refuse collectors, university reform, job losses at the Carrefour supermarket chain and Air France pilots’ wages.
Over the Easter weekend staff at 300 Carrefour supermarkets went out on strike against job cuts. Speech therapists held big protests.
University and school students are mobilising on the streets and holding occupations. They are opposing “reforms” that would make it harder to go to university.
All the strikes have specific demands. Refuse collectors are demanding a national service with common employment rights and pay.
Gas and electricity workers want pay rises and an end to imposed competition. Rail workers are striking for two days in every five to defend their contracts and oppose privatisation.
French workers sense a key moment to break the neoliberal offensive from president Emmanuel Macron.
Macron joins a line of French rulers who have dreamed of being the “Margaret Thatcher figure” who would sweep away workers’ rights and start unrestrained market rule in France.
Mr Mailly, who has led the country’s third-biggest union since 2004, said there was no guarantee that the anti-reform opposition will unite, but even a clumsy taunt or remark by the government might unite workers.
“If it does not start answering our concerns, the situation is going to deteriorate and at some point something is going to happen, that’s clear”, he declared.
The CGT union federation has a proposal for what could be a general strike on 19 April.
The fightback in France is a beacon for workers across Europe. It’s an example for Britain’s workers and trade unions.