PARIS — A vivid crimson tapestry that includes the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara over the phrases “Onward towards victory!” exhorts strikers not to surrender, within the union’s dingy native headquarters. Outdoors, the native’s boss shouted by way of a megaphone on the Gare de Lyon practice station: “The wealthy ought to always remember: There’ll at all times be the sweat of the poor on their cash!”
The transportation strike against the French government’s pension overhaul plan is already the longest within the nation’s historical past. Because it entered its sixth week on Thursday, 1000’s of protesters once more took to the streets throughout France.
Who stands to realize and lose within the pensions overhaul demanded by President Emmanuel Macron is debated day by day. No person agrees on the main points.
However past them is a a lot bigger battle over class, privilege and cash amplified by 200 years of French historical past. These deep underlying points are serving to maintain a marathon motion that’s testing the endurance of the French, hurting their economy and once more exposing the class fault-lines in Mr. Macron’s would-be reformist presidency.
The bitter class-themed rhetoric on the Gare de Lyon in Paris will not be an accident. The present struggle has roots, actual and perceived, in a lot earlier ones — first the overthrow of centuries of upper-class privileges through the French Revolution, after which a long time of bitter battle between capital and labor within the 19th century, from which emerged the pension system that Mr. Macron needs to scrap.
The language of these older fights echoes deeply within the present one, hardening positions on each side, and particularly on the union facet.
In the meantime, the French are growing weary. Prepare transportation is on the coronary heart of French life in a manner it’s in few different international locations. Diminished practice service has minimize the provinces off from Paris, the place the subway’s digital absence has value tens of millions in misplaced gross sales and putting cultural employees have compelled dozens of theater and opera cancellations.
Assist for the strike, which was initially excessive amongst French folks anxious over their retirement, is edging down. Mr. Macron is relying on an additional decline at the same time as he cedes some floor — to the police, to ballet dancers on the opera, to the army — within the face of unrest within the streets and unease in a lot of the inhabitants over his plans.
The president needs to exchange the present system of 42 pension regimes, most of that are tailor-made to match particular person professions, with a single points-based scheme that would be the similar for everyone.
However it’s these particular person regimes — fought for tooth-and-nail through the years by the completely different working teams, and jealously guarded as embodying rights, not privileges — which are at problem.
Mr. Macron needs to dispose of them; the employees are demanding that he throw out his complete overhaul.
Behind the marathon rail and subway shutdown is a straightforward French confrontation, older even than the revolution of 1789: haves versus have-nots, wealthy in opposition to poor, the protected in opposition to the uncovered.
It’s a face-off that exists within the minds of the strikers as a lot because it does in truth, however it’s no much less actual. Notion has turn into actuality, egged on by historical past and the rhetoric of the strike leaders.
“It’s two concepts of social safety, two completely different notions of the social venture, which are in battle,” Philippe Martinez, the chief of the hard-line Basic Confederation of Employees union (identified by its French initials, C.G.T.), mentioned as he emerged from one other fruitless assembly on the prime minister’s workplace simply earlier than Christmas.
“It’s a selection of society that’s on the coronary heart of this reform,” Mr. Martinez mentioned once more on French tv this week.
That language, criticized as extreme by some analysts, has nonetheless penetrated the pondering of 1000’s of strikers, particularly within the C.G.T., the fiercely anti-Macron union on the coronary heart of the strike.
For many years the union was intently tied to the French Communist Celebration. Mr. Martinez is a former occasion member; the union’s deputy who heads the rail employees’ department has a bust of Lenin in his workplace.
“It’s very tough for us to seek out frequent floor with this authorities,” mentioned Bérenger Cernon, the union’s native head on the Gare de Lyon station. “On their facet it’s about, ‘You make out for your self.’ With us, it’s all about solidarity: liberty, equality, fraternity.”
“They suppose, ‘We’ve succeeded, so all people else may also,’” he added. “However particular person success has by no means allowed society to advance. It has by no means benefited the collective.”
That perspective has seeped deeply into the union’s rank and file, and it motivates them.
“There’s Macron’s imaginative and prescient: He’s at all times about making income,” mentioned Sebastien Preaudat, a C.G.T. ticket-checker on the station. “However we’re not right here to generate profits. We’re right here to supply a service to the general public. And people folks” — Mr. Macron’s authorities — “they arrive from the world of finance. We’re preventing simply to say, ‘We’ve labored all our lives, and now we have now the proper to relaxation.’”
The railway employees have turn into a goal of derision on the French proper, as a result of lots of them are allowed to retire as early as 52, with a considerable pension that in some circumstances is significantly larger than the common. The employees see this not as a privilege however as a vital affirmation of their particular standing in French society.
“To a reformer like Macron, this sort of corporatist safety, it’s an archaic imaginative and prescient,” mentioned Philippe d’Iribarne, a sociologist on the Nationwide Heart for Scientific Analysis in Paris. “However France stays a society composed of ranks, and it’s completely threatened by the vanity of the sturdy and the resentment of the powerless.”
“In France, the equality that individuals dream about is: all people will get to achieve the identical noble standing,” Mr. d’Iribarne added.
So Mr. Macron’s rationalist pensions overhaul finds no favor in a union motion tired of that model of equality. Mr. Macron goals to offset the system’s probably looming deficit and its shrinking ratio of employees to retirees. He needs to place all people on the identical footing in a points-system accrued by employees.
“Macron’s a financier who solely sees issues when it comes to competitors. We, we have now a collective imaginative and prescient,” mentioned Arnaud Bourge, a practice driver who listened within the Gare de Lyon courtyard with lots of of different employees as they have been exhorted to stay on strike. “It’s two fully opposed views.”
Mr. Macron has a supervisor’s-eye view of France’s pensions downside that has discovered favor along with his upper-middle-class supporters, some intellectuals, and analysts, however not with employees who need to protect their positive aspects.
“Actually, it’s not two ‘tasks for society,’” mentioned Dominique Andolfatto, a unions skilled on the College of Burgundy, rejecting the view of Mr. Martinez, the union boss. “There’s one which takes under consideration sure social and financial realities, and there’s the opposite that claims, ‘We’re not touching something, the ship goes in the identical route, by no means thoughts concerning the iceberg.’”
However because the strike wears on, lawmakers in Mr. Macron’s occasion are getting nervous.
“We’re witnessing the return of the opposition between employers and employees,” mentioned Jean-François Cesarini, a member of Parliament who helps Mr. Macron. Lawmakers are notably disturbed by the federal government’s intransigence on a sore level with the unions: the plan to boost the retirement age from 62 to 64.
One essential reasonable union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, has steered a possible compromise, to date with out consequence.
“When a rustic is deeply divided, not seizing the hand that’s prolonged to you is extraordinarily harmful,” mentioned Aurélien Taché, one other lawmaker in Mr. Macron’s occasion.
Within the Gare de Lyon courtyard, the handfuls of strikers milling round have been requested for a present of arms about whether or not to extend the strike. Each hand shot up, and there was a roar of approval.
“Now, they’re proposing to take every thing from us,’’ mentioned Mr. Préaudat, the ticket-checker. “And I’m not going to go together with it.”
Fixed Meheut contributed reporting.