A wave of protests and strikes struck France on March 22 as thousands demonstrated against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed overhauls of the railway system and economic reforms.
Strike leaders deliberately chose March 22 due to its historical significance as the start of the 1968 protests, a volatile period of crippling strikes and civil unrest. This year, more than 200,000 workers and students joined protests around the country, with about 48,000 of them protesting in Paris.
Strikes by the French National Railway Corporation, the state-owned railway company, are scheduled to last for a little over three months, with two days of service each week. The events have paralyzed the country, where as many as five million commuters rely on the railway system for transportation. Officials estimate that the strikes affected 40 percent of intercity trains and 30 percent of flights.
The demonstrations come in response to Macron’s plans to cut the railway workers’ benefits, which include a job-for-life guarantee, automatic pay raises, and early retirement at 52. He proposes doing so in order to contain costs and improve service, as the French rail system is over €45 billion ($55.8 billion) in debt.
Despite the chaos, the government has vowed to hold the line. “We are obviously keeping a listening attitude but also a very big determination to pursue the transformation,” said Benjamin Griveaux, a government spokesperson.
The railway overhaul is the first of Macron’s planned reforms, to be followed by changes to the unemployment system later this year and the pension system in 2019.