Q&A: Will France be paralysed by strikes this week?

by Katy Lee

Paris (AFP) - A wave of industrial action is set to hit France this week including rail strikes expected to create havoc for commuters as trade unions lash out at President Emmanuel Macron's reforms.

AFP explains what's at stake:

- Who's going on strike? -

Seven trade unions have called on public sector employees to strike on Thursday, including school and hospital staff, civil servants, air traffic controllers and Paris metro workers.

Rail workers will also join Thursday's action before launching strikes on two days out of every five from April 3 until June 28, unless the government drops its reform plans.

Laurent Brun, head of the CGT Cheminots rail union, said the government would "bear responsibility for a very long and intense battle" in forcing through changes to the rail network.

The government is bracing for major disruption, particularly to public transport, and "limited" strikes at schools.

More than 140 protests are planned across France, the biggest at the Bastille monument in central Paris where unions expect 25,000 demonstrators.

The Socialist party are also backing the day of protests, along with a dozen other leftist parties including the radical France Unbowed of former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Separately, at Air France, of which the state owns a 16-percent stake, staff including pilots and cabin crew will strike Friday seeking a six-percent salary hike.

- What's the strike about? -

Public servants are angry over pay that hasn't kept up with inflation, while unions accuse Macron of wanting to take a sledge-hammer to the public sector.

FSU union official Bernadette Groison said the reforms would herald "the end of the social model we know today, with public services that have been broken apart".

Macron has pledged to cut 120,000 public jobs and his government has raised the prospect of voluntary redundancies, prompting fears that the quality of services will take a hit.

Plans to use more contractors and increasingly offer pay based on merit, rather than on experience, are seen by unions as attacks on traditional job security.

On the railways, plans to strip new recruits of a guaranteed job for life and other benefits have riled unionists who also fear that a restructuring of the SNCF could eventually see it privatised.

Macron's opponents oppose plans to use presidential decrees to pass the rail reforms, a bid to avoid lengthy parliamentary debate that critics say is undemocratic.

He already used this strategy to pass labour reforms in September which loosened France's famously strict regulations on hiring and firing workers.

- What's the government perspective? -

Macron has stayed sanguine through criticism over his reforms, insisting he was elected on a mandate to shake France up.

"We're never happy when things change, yet we want things to change -- that's the paradox of France," he tweeted last week.

The president argues the public sector is too bloated and he is keen to trim spending and balance France's national budget by the end of his term, for what would be the first time since the 1970s.

His government says the behemoth rail operator in particular is crying out for reform, saddled with 46.6 billion euros ($57.3 billion) of debt.

The SNCF runs trains at a 30 percent higher cost than European neighbours, the government says, arguing it is urgent that it becomes more efficient as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

- How bad could the strikes get? -

Macron has so far been spared the scale of industrial action seen under his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, but tensions have been growing.

Though surveys suggest a majority see rolling rail strikes as unjustified, they could potentially be the biggest since 1995, when weeks of walkouts paralysed the national network.

Tens of thousands of people have already taken to the streets in three rounds of protests over Macron's labour reforms.

Retirees have come out to demonstrate over tax changes that reduce their pensions and prison guards staged nearly two weeks of protests in January over security risks and poor pay.

Care workers have gone on strike twice in six weeks over stretched resources and unsanitary conditions in many state retirement homes.

And students have also taken to the streets over planned changes to university access, though in relatively small numbers.