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Strikes spread in France, piling pressure on Macron


Gare de Lyon, one of Paris’s main train stations, on Tuesday. Rail strikes appeared less disruptive than had been expected.

By Constant Méheut and Catherine Porter


It started several weeks ago at refineries. Then it spread to nuclear plants. And finally, on Tuesday, railway workers, some teachers and even high school students across France, at least for the day, joined a snowballing strike that has become the biggest test so far of President Emmanuel Macron’s second term.


The widening strike came on the heels of a large march against rising costs of living held in Paris on Sunday and increases pressure on Macon’s government, which is already embattled in Parliament, where opposition parties are refusing to pass the budget.


Macron is now struggling to mollify anger on three fronts — in factories, on the streets and in Parliament — before it coalesces into a major episode of social unrest. That could threaten his agenda, including plans for a contentious pensions overhaul, as he seeks a direction for his new term.


The original strikes at refineries have left more than a quarter of the pumps across the country fully or partly dry. While Macron promised that the situation would return to normal this week, with his government issuing back-to-work orders, lines at gas stations around Paris continued Tuesday, adding to the frustration among drivers and other commuters.


However, while left-wing politicians and striking union leaders called for mass mobilization and painted the rising sentiment in the country as an “autumn of discontent,” Tuesday’s strike was less disruptive than expected.


Many bus and train trips were canceled, but the scene at the busy Saint-Lazare train station in Paris felt no more hectic than normal. If anything, the railway staff on hand to answer questions outnumbered commuters.


Bruno Verlay left his home three hours earlier than usual to make sure he was on time for his job as a security guard in the city’s financial district. But in the end, he found the trip smooth.


“I am so used to strikes,” said Verlay, 58, “I’m immune.”


Many high school students also joined the protest, with some in Paris blockading the entrance of their schools. Students at the Hélène Boucher high school, in the east of the capital, barricaded themselves behind large green garbage cans and were holding signs denouncing recent changes in education policy, warning that students’ lives had become more precarious, or protesting police violence.


“More teachers, less cops!” they chanted Tuesday morning.


The strike Tuesday — which organizers planned to coalesce into a large march in Paris — coincided with efforts this week by Macron’s government to get its budget through Parliament. The last legislative elections in June left Macron short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of Parliament.


Legislators are threatening to vote down the spending bill. So Macron’s government is likely to use special constitutional powers to push it through without a vote. Olivier Véran, the government’s spokesman, said it would “probably” do so Wednesday.


Étienne Ollion, a sociologist at the Polytechnique engineering school who specializes in French parliamentary life, said the mechanism, allowed under Article 49.3 of France’s 1958 Constitution, was “a bit of an authoritarian measure.” Although the mechanism had been used 60 times since its introduction, he said, Macron’s lack of a parliamentary majority and the current climate of social unrest could make it a more delicate move.


“It could have an effect on the mobilizations,” Ollion said, referring to the strikes and protests, adding that protesters might see such a move as “an attempt to avoid confronting the reality of the situation, that is one of political difficulties.”


Using these constitutional powers would also allow members of the opposition to put forward no-confidence motions, which leftist and far-right groups in Parliament have already promised to do.


But Ollion said the risk of a government collapse “is relatively limited,” because the main center-right opposition seems reluctant to join in a no-confidence motion and because the left and far right appear unwilling to back one another’s.

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