French railroad workers, air traffic controllers and others are protesting the French president’s labor changes. (Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Railway workers and air traffic controllers led strikes across France on Thursday, opening a bitter showdown over labor overhauls sought by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The strikes — which disrupted travel across the country, as well as transatlantic flights — signal a critical test for Macron as his government seeks to challenge France’s tightly controlled ­public-sector labor markets and stimulate a stagnant economy.

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker, faced only minimal resistance last fall to the first wave of workplace changes, which included broader rules on hiring and firing employees.

But France’s powerful public sector, which employs more than 5 million people, is putting its foot down against the next stage: proposals to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs, hire more contract workers and slash budgets across the board.

Rail workers planned to go for the jugular with a “rolling” protest: a two-day strike every three days, causing major upheaval to a transport system that handles millions of passengers every day.

Many high-speed trains — including the renowned TGV service — were canceled between Paris and other French cities in Thursday’s opening salvo. Commuter train service within the capital was also suspended.

The Eurostar, connecting Paris with London, canceled some runs through the English Channel tunnel.

Meanwhile, striking air traffic controllers forced the grounding of many short-haul flights at the Paris-area airports of Orly, Beauvais and Charles de Gaulle.

Air travel disruption is expected to worsen Friday.

Air France said 30 percent of long-haul flights would be affected, as would 20 percent of short-haul flights.


An employee of the state-owned SNCF railway walks past empty platforms at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris. (Christophe Simon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Teachers, nurses and other workers also joined the strike. Some schools across the country were forced to close.

So far, Macron has been spared the kind of devastating strikes that have unraveled previous French governments.

The public-sector plans — which still need parliamentary approval — may prove to be a different story.

Macron seeks to forge ahead with these changes without the same level of calculated exchange with labor leaders as he engaged in ahead of the first round of labor revisions.

Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s transport minister, defended the labor plans as crucial to ensure the strength and survival of France’s state-owned railway company.

“This is a necessary, indispensable reform,” Borne said, appearing on France’s BFM TV on Thursday. “My hope is not a test of strength; my hope is for negotiations.”

But these changes — particularly with regard to the railways — strike at the heart of a system that has long been a model of the French state’s collective commitments, both to transport and to those who run it.

Railway workers have long enjoyed expansive benefits, including generous pensions and, for some employees, the option of retirement at age 52, a full decade before the official retirement age of 62.

These benefits stem from an era when the job entailed intense manual labor, including the shoveling of coal — a time Macron has said is long gone.

“How old are you?” the young president responded to a railway worker at an agricultural fair last month, when asked about the proposals.

“You do not have the same work rhythm as my grandfather, who was a railway man,” Macron added. Macron’s grandfather, ­André Macron, worked for France’s state-owned railway company in the northern Somme region.


Students joined the demonstrations in Paris. (Yoan Valat/European Pressphoto Agency)

Political scientists see this as a watershed moment that could determine the future of the French welfare system in a time when Macron has already succeeded in bringing France slightly closer to Anglo-American visions of the state.

“If the government succeeds in revising the legal status of the railway and other workers, it’s really the end of an era,” said Gérard Grunberg, an expert on the French political left and an emeritus professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.

In the past, governments have quickly backed down in the face of massive protests.

In 1995, the center-right government of Alain Juppé, the prime minister of President Jacques Chirac, withdrew proposals to overhaul railway pensions after a strike brought the country to a standstill.

Union leaders are threatening much the same this year, said Jean-Marc Canon, secretary general of UGFF-CGT, a large public-sector union.

There is also symbolism at work. Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of a 1968 student uprising that grew into the largest public protest in modern French history.

“Either they listen to us and it will have been just a warning shot,” Canon said on French radio Thursday. “Or they don’t listen to us and then, let me tell you that public-sector workers are very mobilized.”

The question is whom the French will blame when the inevitable disruptions to public life occur, Grunberg said.

Opinion polls suggest most French voters agree with Macron’s proposals, but few French citizens will be unaffected by the planned strikes, which have yet to take their full toll.

“In the end, is it the fault of the unions? Or the fault of the government?” Grunberg said. “The French are contradictory on this.”