PARIS—May Day, the traditional May 1 Labor Day holiday, has been particularly charged in France this year. It marks the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 student and worker uprisings that convulsed France, transforming the country and the world. It was a dramatic, romantic moment, one that shaped a generation.
Not the generation of President Emmanuel Macron. The first French head of state to come of age in the ’90s, not the ’60s, didn’t spend the holiday making speeches on the Left Bank, the epicenter of the French student protests. Instead, he hopped a flight halfway around the globe—to Australia—leaving behind a country simmering with labor unrest.
Simmering, but not quite boiling. Yes, groups of troublemaking leftist agitators threw Molotov cocktails in some demonstrations here in Paris on Tuesday, providing telegenic images that distort the bigger picture. Yes, the railway workers have called rolling strikes—two strike days every three days through June—maddening travelers. The strikes are to protest Macron’s desire to end early retirement for some railway workers and lifetime employment for new railway hires—changes Macron’s opponents believe will open the door to privatizing the national railway. Air France pilots have called intermittent strikes, demanding a 6 percent pay raise. Students have been occupying universities, protesting changes to make France’s chaotic university-admissions system more selective—and been evicted by riot police. Workers in many other sectors are upset. But the labor movement isn’t as strong as it was in the past. The seven major labor unions didn’t manage to assemble a united front in Tuesday’s annual May Day demonstrations. Fewer workers have been on strike. A recent poll found only four in 10 people in France were in solidarity with the railway strike.