French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in January [Ludovic Marin/AFP]
Strikes that forced a shutdown of the University of Paris, one of the first universities in Europe, continued for two years and placed a significant economic strain on the student quarter of Paris.
The strikes followed the deaths of students who were allegedly involved in riots. City guardsmen turned unexpectedly rough and killed some students as punishment.
That civil unrest happened in 1229 and is the earliest known account of strikes in France.
Now, almost 800 years later, a series of protests is taking place in France against planned reforms of the national state-owned railway company SNCF.
Protest leaders say the strikes are set to last at least three months, presenting the strongest challenge yet for President Emmanuel Macron and his reform agenda.
Railway unions began their strike on April 2. In what they are calling a “beaded strike”, unions will call on SNCF employees to stop working for two days a week.
The intermittent strikes amount to a total of 36 days and are the cause of major disruptions.
The French government is seeking to reform the railway sector before the summer. The SNCF is plagued by a debt of $57.7bn, compromising future investments.
In February, Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, outlined plans to open up the rail monopoly to competition, which is an obligation for the Europe 2020 strategy to advance the economy of the European Union.
The government decided to stop short of privatisation but said the SNCF should nevertheless be placed on equal footing with private competitors.
The government also seeks to stop offering privileged employment status to new employees.
Current SNCF personnel are guaranteed employment for life, social security, early retirement and a generous pension, as well as free train services for them and discounted rates for some of their family members.
The four labour unions representing railway workers say their demands are not being met or heard.
“As long as the government does not open real negotiations, the mobilisation will not stop,” Sylvain Esnault, head of communications at the CGT Federation of Railway Workers, one of the labour unions that initiated the strike, told Al Jazeera.
“From the beginning, meetings with the ministry have only been listening sessions. It is a sham dialogue.”
The CGT union submitted a report containing proposals for developing the public rail service to the prime minister, emphasising a focus on developing the railway system, financing it, settling the status of railway workers, and opening up to competition.
Out of sympathy
Political scientist Thomas Guenole said he believes the “so-called advantages” of railway workers “are a pure and simple lie”.
“The wages of the railway workers are in the national average, and the age at which they actually retire is in the national average too,” he told Al Jazeera.
There is far less automatic sympathy for the SNCF at this moment than there used to be, according to public polls. The level of rail services has sharply declined, especially for commuters, who are as a result more open to calls for reform.
But “to blame a strike for disrupting the functioning of the economy or the SNCF is as absurd as blaming the water for getting wet”, said Guenole.
In an interview with the French TV channel TF1 last month, Macron said “it is not about stigmatising railroaders”.
“Working time is not consistent with the rest of society. There are rules of maintenance in society, which are more restrictive than in the civil service,” he said.
Macron confirmed the state would gradually take on part of the SNCF’s debt when it was reformed.
Surveys suggest most voters back Macron’s reforms, but his overall approval ratings have fallen below 50 percent this year, according to a poll conducted by the Observatory of National Politics.
“Macron cannot back down now. Otherwise, he will give the impression of yielding to the first strong opposition he encounters,” Bruno Cautres, a political analyst and researcher at Sciences Po in Paris, told Al Jazeera.
“If the strikes last a long time and the government does not make some concessions, it will have a negative effect on Macron’s popularity,” he said.
Since Macron became president, reforms have been made to the labour market, corporation taxation, universities, vocational training and the baccalaureat.
In this case, there is a lot at stake for Macron, both domestically and internationally, if he backs down on his plans.
“A way has to be found in which no one loses face. For the moment, the battle is not yet won. But I do not doubt that Macron will achieve his goals while showing that he made some concessions to the railway workers,” Cautres said.
Macron remains determined to liberalise France’s economic model and restore its international status.
As he told the press in February: “I do not forget where I come from and why I am here today. I am the product of a form of brutality of history. I broke in because France was unhappy and worried.”