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France goes on strike as Europe’s cost-of-living crisis deepens

French President Emmanuel Macron's pro-business economic plans drew backlash in a sample of the frustration growing across Europe.

(CN) — Workers across France went on strike Tuesday, and thousands of protesters joined demonstrations in Paris and other cities, to express their frustration with soaring inflation and the country's overhaul of its pension system.

Among the disruptions caused by the strike, some regional and long-distance train services were canceled, commuters dealt with long delays, nuclear power plants reduced their electricity output and many school classrooms were empty.

The call for a one-day national strike by French trade unions reflects a growing mood of disquiet and anger found across Europe as energy costs soar and dark clouds gather over Europe's economies.

Tuesday's strike in France came amid a labor fight between oil companies and striking workers at French oil refineries that has lasted for more than two weeks. A third of France's gas stations are struggling with low supplies and many are out of gas altogether. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched in Paris to decry the cost-of-living crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron's government is trying to curb the trade action by forcing striking refinery employees back onto the job.

“The time for negotiation is over,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told French broadcaster BFMTV about the decision to requisition striking workers.

With a social and political crisis mounting, the Elysée held an emergency cabinet meeting Tuesday to hammer out a strategy.

Workers with the far-left trade union General Confederation of Labor are leading the refinery protests. They are demanding higher wages and denouncing windfall profits reaped by energy companies during a global spike in oil and natural gas prices caused in large part by the war in Ukraine.

Intensified by the European Union's decision to impose massive sanctions on Russia and sever its reliance on Russian energy supplies, skyrocketing energy costs across the bloc have turned up the heat on a cost-of-living crisis.

The broad dissatisfaction with how European governments are handling the crisis was captured in a recent YouGov survey of people in Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Denmark.

“Overwhelmingly, Europeans are unhappy with how their government is managing the cost of living,” said YouGov, a global online pollster and market research firm.

At least 6 in 10 people said they were unhappy and in Italy, and in Britain that negative feeling soared to 82%. A large majority of households said they have had to make cuts in their spending, the survey found.

Tuesday's strike was the latest in a wave of protests and strikes over soaring prices that have hit European countries. In Britain, for example, strikes have been going on for months. Recently, teachers in several European countries went on strike against below-inflation wage increases.

The growing appetite for a new season of strikes in France poses risks for Macron's government, which is weak anyway due to his party's losses at parliamentary elections in June. Faced with stiff opposition in the National Assembly, Macron's party, recently rebranded as the Renaissance party, is threatening to ram through a pro-business 2023 budget by way of a controversial constitutional process known as Article 49.3. It allows the executive branch to force legislation through parliament but it is viewed as a “nuclear option.”

French workers are protesting not only the steady rise in inflation but Macron's proposed pension reforms, which entail cuts for some workers. Inside the protests there is also a vein of anti-war and anti-NATO sentiment, with calls for the EU to help end the conflict in Ukraine.

Workers from a wide spectrum participated in Tuesday's strike. Among those striking were rail workers, high school teachers, subway employees in Paris, nurses, city trash collectors and nuclear power plant staff. Many students also walked out of classes to support the strike, especially at French technical high schools, which are the object of Macron reforms.

Private industries saw workers join the strike as well. Work was disrupted at automaker Stellantis, defense contractor Dassault and airplane engine manufacturer Safran, according to news reports.

Support in France for the strikes is divided. A survey by Elabe pollsters for BFMTV showed 39% of the public backing Tuesday's nationwide strike with 49% opposing it.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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