French President Emmanuel Macron renewed his pledge to overhaul swathes of the French economy today, disregarding a crippling train strike that is poised to last weeks and students blockading universities across the country.

The Government is "calm and most determined" to implement a reform of state-owned railway operator SNCF, spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters following the weekly Cabinet meeting. "Protests mustn't keep us from making the changes for which we were elected less than a year ago."

SNCF said about 30 per cent of its employees, including 74 per cent of drivers, were on strike today, leaving only one in seven high-speed trains running, about one in five regional trains, and about one in three Paris commuter services.

Several campuses including Paris's Sorbonne university were blocked as students protested a plan to make applications more selective.

Advertisement

Undeterred by the demonstrations, Macron's Cabinet today approved a housing policy plan and examined an immigration bill as well a constitutional reform.

Changes at SNCF, the indebted national railroad, will deny future hires the job security, early retirement and special pensions of existing workers while opening lines up to competition, a recipe for reform which Macron plans to apply to the rest of the euro region's second-largest economy.

All the same, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe cancelled a three-day trip to Mali later this week due to the strikes.

In his first year in office, Macron pushed through a liberalisation of labour law and cut taxes on capital, and is now planning to overhaul jobless benefits, simplify France's retirement systems, and streamline parliamentary procedures. Protests against Macron's earlier measures were timid and quickly faded, but the SNCF's 74,000 employees are heavily unionised and united.

The next strike runs from Sunday morning until Monday night NZT.

Unions have planned a series of two-day stoppages every five days until June but Thierry Nier, deputy head of the CGT union, the largest at the SNCF, said on France Info they could be called off if there are advances in the talks.

Air France unions have called for strikes on April 8, 11, and 12 in an unrelated pay dispute at the national airline. There is also a strike of rubbish collectors in the Paris region.


Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said it's too early to judge what impact the strikes could have on the economy. "It's our ability to hold firm in our determination to transform the SNCF that's decisive for the image we have overseas," he told LCI television.

Advertisement

Students have blocked universities in Paris, Montpellier, Toulouse, and Nice to protest against what they say are more selective admissions procedures. About 10 sites are blocked across the country, according to BFM.

"As long as we are in discussion or debate about the law, then it's normal," Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal said on France2. "But I can't accept that students are hit, that buildings are damaged like in Nice. There are many false claims out there."


French strikes have generally been unsuccessful for the past 20 years. Unions failed to stop President Nicolas Sarkozy raising the retirement age in 2010, nor Francois Hollande making it easier to fire workers in 2016.

But memories are still vivid of 1995, when a series of massive strikes forced the Government to back down on making cuts to the country's welfare and pension system. Likewise, the 1968 student protests in Paris that led to civil and labour unrest, bringing the country to a standstill and almost sparking a constitutional crisis.

Public opinion is split on the current dispute. An Ifop poll released over the weekend showed 46 per cent think the SNCF strike is justified, while 53 per cent say it isn't. But just two weeks earlier, 42 per cent had said the strikes were justified.

"The Battle for Public Opinion Begins," was the headline in Le Parisien.

Advertisement

- Bloomberg