The gas masks are once again being pulled on as France takes to the streets in protest.

“Macron get lost” and “Don’t touch our pensions,” read the slogans on just some of the banners of those on the barricades facing down the French president these past few days.

Just when Emmanuel Macron seemed to have finally put the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests behind him, the country finds itself in the throes of one of the biggest strikes seen in years. And when it comes to such protests the French are not known for doing things by halves.

In all an estimated 800,000 people over the past few days have taken part in demonstrations around the country, 65,000 of them in the capital Paris, according to a union organiser.

READ MORE: David Pratt on France's desert war

The Eiffel Tower and other businesses in the city closed down and security authorities formed a barricade around the presidential palace. Authorities also deployed over 6,000 police officers to control protests and marches.

Across the country schools were shut, flights cancelled and transport systems disrupted, and this may only just be the start.

The fresh round of social unrest is once again calling into question Macron’s top down government style, which was a major factor in last year’s protest over poor wages and dwindling living standards.

HeraldScotland:

The current strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against a trade union movement that say he is set on dismantling workers’ rights and protections.

“No one can fail to see the clouds of social grievance that have gathered over France,” observed Alexis Moreau a journalist and French labour movement researcher, writing about the crisis in the political magazine Tribune a few days ago

“Brought to power by an electoral bloc mostly consisting of top managers, company bosses, and well-off pensioners, Emmanuel Macron has pursued a neoliberal agenda that has deepened the divides in French society,” Moreau added.

Many French citizens agree and sympathy for the strike has been fuelled by frustration over Macron’s wider economic record. Critics of the president for example point to the fact that while he continues to chip away at the welfare state and slashes unemployment benefits, France’s rich get off lightly.

This after all they argue is a country with more than 40 billionaires and where French companies last year paid out more dividends to shareholders than anywhere else in continental Europe

For his part Macron, following what some say was a political victory in neutering last years protests, promised to adopt a more inclusive approach. He would listen to other voices he said and take stock of their grievances, but evidence of that to date say detractors remains scant.

“The victory doesn’t seem to have rehabilitated Macron. This week’s protest is the reflection of a crisis in French society, one that can explode at any moment,” said Jean Garrigues, a political historian at the University of Orleans, speaking to the New York Times. “There’s real anxiety over the future,” Garrigues warned.

HeraldScotland:

At the core of the current unease causing unrest across France is what Macron refers to as his “Big Bang” overhaul of the country’s near sacred pension scheme, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits.

In theory, everyone in France retires at 62. In reality however the average real retirement age is 63, but that number masks a host of disparities. The average age for men is just over 60, but some people mostly, women with fragmented careers, have to work until they are 67.

But some pension schemes, especially for certain state employees, de-facto subsidised by other workers, are exceptionally generous. Train drivers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers for instance are able to retire at the age of 52, up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

At the moment French retirees receive average state pensions of 61 per cent of their final earnings according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This is less than Italy (83 per cent) but far more than Germany (38 per cent) and the UK (29 per cent).

Given such complexities in France however, past attempts at pension reforms have ended badly. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests and lost a parliamentary election 18 months later.

READ MORE: France strikes: roads blocks and railways shut

The question now is whether Macron can weather the current political storm or will he suffer the same fate as Chirac?

Underlining how serious the crisis is for the president, the French daily Le Monde on Thursday called it “the moment of truth for Macron.”

Not pulling any punches, the newspaper insisted that the next few days “are a decisive test for the head of state.”

According to Macron the existing pension system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights, or so the thinking goes. The accumulation of these points throughout a person’s working life would then be translated into a monthly salary at the point they retired.

Supporters of Macron’s reforms say the points-based pensions system has a number of advantages. First, it gives individuals a great deal of autonomy. They can choose if they want to retire at 58 or 80. Second, it offers obvious incentives. Someone who retires at 65 will get a better pension than someone on the same salary that decides to stop working aged 60.

The schemes simplicity, equality of treatment and, above all, transferability say these supporters makes it an attractive proposition, but others are far less convinced.

According to French labour movement researcher Alexis Moreau, currently pension levels for those in the private sector are set on the basis of a worker’s twenty-five best years or in the case of state employees the last six months of their career. But under Macron’s reform proposals their salary would now instead be calculated on the basis of their entire active period.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that most wage earners would lose out from this, starting with those whose working lives were hit by periods of unemployment,” says Moreau.

Around France she says, “working people have been getting out their calculators to work out how much they’re set to lose.”

Other observers agree that there are serious built in discrepancies. Veteran journalist John Lichfield who was Paris correspondent for the Independent for 20 years, says there will inevitably be many losers as well as gainers from the Macron scheme.

“Nurses for example, have already pointed out that their pension regime has a 3 billion euro surplus, while the lawyers’ fund is 2 billion euros in the black,” wrote Lichfield in the online current affairs magazine Politico.

“Other funds, such as those for Metro workers, are chronically loss making. Teachers, poorly paid early in the careers, say that they would lose out if their pensions were decided by lifetime “points” rather than “final salary,” Lichfield added.

HeraldScotland:

Some critics also point to flaws in the execution of Macron’s reforms, suggesting he has left it too late in his presidential term to undertake such substantial changes.

It’s a narrow window of opportunity they say to push through such reforms, after which leaders like Macron no longer have enough political capital to expend on changes that risk losing public support.

This certainly appears to be the case right now in France where the political storm clouds continue to gather menacingly over the Elysee Palace.

Yet the unpopularity in some quarters with Macron’s pension reforms sits in sharp contrast with some opinion poll ratings which are said to have climbed to the high 30s and low 40s, unusually high for a French mid-term president.

But as the crisis rumbles on, Macron's pension tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye is due to hold talks with the unions on Monday before the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presents the broad outlines of the proposal to the public mid-week.

READ MORE: Emmanuel Macron stands his ground, saying Nato suffering from 'brain death' and needs clearer strategy

Last Friday however French union leaders said public workers in opposition to the reforms should maintain their industrial action until Tuesday, when they urged members to again flood the streets.

“Unions will meet on Tuesday evening to decide on our next actions if by then Macron and Philippe have not reversed course and opened negotiations,” Catherine Perret of the left wing CGT union told reporters.

The current strikes are being seen as a test of strength for the French trade union movement, which has been more defensive since the 2008 economic crisis. For those hard-left unions whose membership and influence have diminished in recent years, the crisis poses a delicate tightrope walk of needing to pressure Macron and the government while not creating a public backlash.

In Paris last Thursday, gilets jaunes protesters who posed a significant challenge to Macron’s agenda with anti-government demonstrations last year joined union marchers. But Thursday’s march was also much larger than any yellow vest protest, underlining the threat level and unease among wider sections of French workers and society.

“The government is truly afraid of the scale of the mobilisation,” Bertrand Hammache, a CGT union official at the RATP (Paris’s bus and metro service) was quoted as saying last Thursday.

“It has begun bilateral meetings with each union to try and reassure us over what the reform means, and give us a reason to give up on the strike. But that’s out of the question,” Hammache insisted.

But not all unions agree. France’s biggest and most moderate trade union federation, the CFDT for example, broadly supports Macron’s reforms, while some unions have failed to agree on a common front against them.

By far the biggest fear for the moment though is the potential for violent protests stirred up by members of groups from the hard right and left of the political spectrum. In central Paris last Thursday police used tear gas when hooded protesters on the fringes of the trade unions’ march threw fireworks at officers, ransacked bus stops, and set fire to rubbish bins.

 

HeraldScotland: French economy minister Emmanuel Macron appears on The Andrew Marr Show (BBC/PA)

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has warned that thousands of anarchist “black bloc” and hardcore “yellow vest” protesters, who last year took to the streets for months over the cost of living and perceived elitism of the political class, might try to wreak havoc.

Some observers however have also expressed concern that far from being confined to Macron and France itself, the crisis poses a much wider danger. Writing in her column in The Guardian last week French journalist Natalie Nougayrede suggested that extreme forces across Europe are busily “rejoicing over Macron’s gilets jaunes predicament.”

According to Nougayrede’s assessment, “from Britain’s hardline Brexiteers to Italy’s far right strongman Matteoi Salvini, not to mention Putin’s propaganda outlets, the relish is unmistakable.”

Certainly there is little doubt that Macron’s championing of liberals and pro-Europeans has not gone down well with some of those leaders he has criticised for targeting migrants and political opponents.

Perhaps sensing Macron’s vulnerability at this precise moment, some have been quick to exploit his difficulties at home in France. On a similar tack, there are pressing questions too as to how much the current strike could damage Macron’s wider international standing.

It’s worth remembering that just as things were brewing up at home, other leaders put Macron on the spot last week during the NATO Summit in London, where he clashed with US President Donald Trump during a tense press conference.

But without doubt it’s on his home turf that Macron faces his toughest battle for now. Should he not blink over his controversial pension policy, then doubtless the gas masks and barricades will again be the norm on the streets of Paris this week.

Back in 1950 while serving as Prime Minster of France, Edgar Faure once wryly observed that, “France is always early to revolt, because it is always late to reform”.

Pension reform is never an easy political sell, not least in France and might yet well prove a make or break moment for Macron on many levels. France’s winter of discontent might just be beginning.