IN THE western city of Nantes, protesters burned an effigy of the president. On the university campus of Nanterre, riot police had to break up a sit-in. Across the country, railwaymen this week entered the third round of rolling strikes. As France approaches the 50th anniversary of the uprising of May 1968, it seems once again to be caught up in a wave of defiant rebellion. The French may have elected a young leader, Emmanuel Macron, who promised change. But nearly a year later it appears that they have already had enough.

The sources of discontent are various. Railway workers, or cheminots, are on strike against a reorganisation of the SNCF, the national railway, which would put an end to jobs-for-life for new recruits. Air France pilots have grounded planes over a pay dispute. Retirees are unhappy because they face higher social charges on their pensions. Students are protesting against a new application process, which gives universities more say over the undergraduates they take (currently, they cannot select at entry on academic grounds).

These conflicts are mostly unconnected. But the overall impression is one of chaos. Spring in France is protest season, and manifs (demos) sprout in the warmer weather like crocuses. It is a measure of how seriously he takes the revolt that Mr Macron, who thinks the French president should take a “Jupiterian” approach to power and remain above the daily grind, agreed unusually this week to two live televised interviews. One was for a lunchtime news programme, popular with provincial viewers and pensioners.

Up to a point, Mr Macron is indeed facing the most demanding, and symbolic, test of his reformist resolve. The reorganisation of the SNCF is designed to prepare (though will not privatise) the railways for upcoming competition under previously approved European rules. The railwaymen, some of whom can still retire at the age of 50, know that such perks cannot last. Mr Macron was elected on a promise to unify the disparate rules governing French public pensions, and this reform lies ahead. Pensioners too knew that he would raise their contributions, to compensate for his decision to lower social charges on people in work. It is scarcely surprising that, as the reality of such changes sinks in, disgruntlement has spread.

The current conflict could yet harden, and drag on. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that France is merely stuck on the same old track. Over the past 11 months, one of the most surprising features of the new government has been its ability to push through a raft of reforms with a minimum of fuss.

Last September Mr Macron liberalised the labour market and simplified redundancy rules, without protracted protests. More recently his labour minister, Muriel Pénicaud, tore up a soft deal agreed between unions and bosses over reform of France’s inefficient publicly mandated training schemes and imposed her own more radical scheme, prompting little more than a whimper. The government has ended the wealth tax, and put a flat tax on financial income. Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, now forecasts a government budget surplus by 2022, which would be the first for France since 1974.

A broader set of policies has also slid through. Last summer parliamentary rules on employing relatives were tightened. Mr Macron now wants to shrink the number of deputies in the National Assembly from 577 to 404. An ambitious overhaul of the treasured school-leaving baccalauréat exam is under way, as are negotiations over phasing out jobs-for-life in the civil service. Class sizes were halved for five- to six-year-olds in tough schools in time for the start of the current academic year. “Macron has delivered far more than I expected,” says Jacques Delpla, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics, who judges the SNCF restructuring the key to unlocking further reform.

Mr Macron has been helped by a big parliamentary majority, and an opposition enfeebled by his new party’s rise. By laying out his plans during the campaign, and securing a mandate for them, the president has managed to tick off a fair number of items on his to-do list. His ministers have tried to marginalise hard-line unions. Mr Macron is also hoping to lean on public opinion, explaining, for instance, that his plans for pensions and training are not just about penny-pinching.

If Mr Macron is nudging France in the right direction, why then is there so much discontent, on and off the street? From a high of 57% last June, his approval rating has dropped to just 40%. One answer is that he is touching vested interests. Fully 63% of retirees, for instance, disapprove of his presidency, according to an Ifop poll.

Another is that, in his quest to govern from on high, Mr Macron tends to come across as disdainful, and out of touch with ordinary folk. The French like the way he has improved their country’s image. As many as 66% think he defends the country well abroad. Yet only 34% of the French judge the former investment banker close to the everyday preoccupations of his fellow citizens. He has been tagged “the president of the rich”.

All French leaders are haunted by the memory of 1968. Mr Macron, though, was born nearly a decade later, and seems to have less of a complex about it than most. Of all his reforms, the SNCF restructuring is not the most radical. But the cheminot remains a romantic figure, and high-speed railways are an emblem of French technological prowess. Public opinion could swing behind the strikes. The railways may not be Mr Macron’s defining reform. But his handling of the conflict could be the decisive moment of his presidency.