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France ‘backs Macron’ in standoff with rail unions

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during a visit to the primary school of Rilly-sur-Vienne

President Emmanuel Macron is squaring off against rail unions with most voters on his side, a poll showed, as a labour force with a history of confrontation threatens open-ended strike action over his plan to modernise the state-run company.

On Wednesday his government backed a bill to fast-track through parliament the biggest shake-up of debt-ridden state-run operator SNCF since the railways were nationalised in 1930s, including ending the right to jobs for life and removing early retirement provisions.

The four main SNCF unions, whose protests over reform plans in 1995 forced a u-turn from then prime minister Alain Juppe from which he never recovered, will decide on Thursday whether to call nationwide rolling strikes.

Thursday Odoxa survey showed two in every three French believe that response is unjustified, pointing to broad public backing for Macron‘s ambitious shake-up.

In daring to reform the generous and costly working conditions of railworkers, Macron is treading where past French leaders have shied away.

The battle over the future of the SNCF is as much a test of the mettle of unions, who have seen their influence decline as public appetite for industrial action wanes, as for Macron‘s stomach for driving through his reform agenda.

The Odoxa poll showed respondents were less convinced than previously that any unrest could paralyse France as in the past.

In 1995, the more than three weeks of transport strikes spearheaded by the hard-left CGT enjoyed popular support and drew in stoppages in other industries.

The number of French worried about a similar outcome this time around fell to 49 per cent from 64 per cent in a poll two weeks ago.

“That would seem to suggest there is far greater demand for far-reaching reform,” the Odoxa polling firm said, though it added: “Beware. It doesn’t mean blockages will not happen or that the government won’t take a hit if the conflict and stoppages spread.”

More worryingly for Macron, the Odoxa poll also showed voters’ concerns over personal finances were rising despite a pick-up in the economy. Other surveys have also shown French people believe their purchasing power is being eroded, in particular pensioners.

Pensioners are taking to the streets in several cities on Thursday to denounce the increase of some taxes by Macron, a former investment banker, who has also come under fire for scrapping a wealth tax and curbs on social housing aid.

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