French public sector strike disrupt schools, hospitals

By PHILIPPE SOTTO and SYLVIE CORBET Markets Associated Press

A nationwide strike Tuesday disrupted schools, hospitals and air traffic across France, and nearly a quarter million civil servants took to the streets around the country to protest President Emmanuel Macron's economic policies.

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They're expressing anger at wage freezes, the axing of 120,000 jobs in public services over the next five years and a succession of spending cuts and labor reforms that Macron argues will boost the economy.

In Paris, the police said they counted 26,000 demonstrators, while the CGT, the main trade union, counted twice that number in the capital alone and hundreds of thousands across the country. The Interior ministry said 209,000 took part in protests nationwide.

It was the first time in ten years that all public service unions had called for strike action. Philippe Martinez, the CGT leader, told reporters in the Paris demonstration that the participation in this strike day was "very significant" and praised the union unity.

Among the protesters marching in Paris, Beatrice Vieval, a 49-year-old nurse, says her Paris public hospital has seen three recent suicides among staff, and she fears that Macron's plans "will make the situation worse."

Alongside teachers, hospital workers made up many of the protesters. Vieval, who works at the Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris, told The Associated Press she already feels squeezed by increasing cutbacks — "wages are frozen, hospital conditions are deteriorated, staff is depleted by reorganizing services."

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Amado Lebaube, a 20-year-old philosophy student in the Sorbonne university, said degraded working conditions are already hurting consumers of public services, and could threaten his ability to stay in school. He expressed thanks for state-paid teachers, student housing aid and government scholarships, adding, "I can study today because there are public services in this country."

Flagship carrier Air France said about 25 percent of domestic flights were cancelled due to a walkout by some traffic controllers. The airline maintained long-haul flights to and from Paris airports.

The education ministry said in a statement about 17 percent of teachers across the country were on strike Tuesday. Some school canteens and nurseries were closed, and several high schools in Paris were closed because students were blocking the entrances in solidarity with the union action.

"They unravel all the social protections supposed to protect the weakest and the workers," said Sandrine Amoud, a teacher on strike in Paris to protest against Macron's policies.

Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of the FO union, called on Macron to stop "austerity" policies toward public servants during a protest in the city of Lyon.

While demonstrations were largely peaceful across the country, a small group of protesters skirmished with police at the end of a march to the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris.

Tuesday's industrial action comes after several other street protests in recent weeks against Macron's proposed changes to labor laws, which apply to employees of the private sector. Unions fear Macron's economic policies would weaken France's hard-won worker protections.

The hard-left CGT union called for new protests and strikes against Macron's labor reforms on Oct. 19.