MAYHEM at railway stations. Gridlock on the roads. The scenes of strife in France this week were as familiar as they were symbolic. On April 3rd train drivers and other rail staff began a rolling strike, planned for two out of every five days, that may last for months. It could be a re-run of the strikes that paralysed the country in 1995, forcing Alain Juppé, Jacques Chirac’s prime minister, to back down in the face of chaos. How President Emmanuel Macron handles the confrontation with unions will determine whether he lives up to his electoral promise to “unblock” France, or joins the long list of French leaders defeated by the revolt of the street.

A grève problem

Strikes are part of France’s culture of protest. They are seldom just a demand for better wages or working conditions. Rather, they are a political show of force. Having failed to mobilise workers against Mr Macron’s labour reform last September, hardline unions now sense a chance to test his resolve. They know how the French romanticise their railways as a jewel of state planning, and disdain British-style privatisation.

The French high-speed train network is indeed a marvel. But SNCF, the state railway company, is laden with debts and ill prepared for upcoming competition under European Union rules. Staff of the French railway enjoy extraordinary privilege, dating from the days when shovelling coal into steam engines was punishing work. In a country with a life expectancy of 82 years, train drivers can retire at 50 (rising to just 52 by 2024) rather than at 62, the national retirement age. Unlike most public workers, they enjoy free train tickets, they receive free health care and, in some cases, subsidised housing.

Despite the unions’ scare stories, Mr Macron does not plan to privatise SNCF. Nor is his reform plan particularly radical. Only new rail employees would be without their perks. Current staff—including those on strike—will keep theirs. Even so, 77% of train drivers joined the first day of industrial action. Equally worrying for Mr Macron, Air France staff are also on strike. And discontent has spread to university campuses.

It goes without saying that Mr Macron needs to keep his nerve. A government defeated once by the street will suffer irrevocable damage to its reformist credentials. Mr Macron’s reform of SNCF is only part of a bigger effort to reshape the welfare state in a country where the public sector consumes 56% of GDP, the highest in the EU. Mr Macron rightly wants to trim the civil service. That will be difficult unless he can end the jobs-for-life culture.

Fortunately, there are reasons to think that France is not the country of 23 years ago. For a start, Mr Macron was elected on a promise to liberalise the economy and harmonise France’s myriad pension regimes so that the same rules apply to all. In contrast, after Mr Chirac came in vowing to heal the “social fracture”, his hard line was seen as a broken promise. In 1995 public opinion backed the grévistes, and support grew even as the strikes dragged on. Today commuter lines are creaking, and more of the French accept the need for change. At the age of 50, most French people have many years of toil ahead of them. Why should train drivers be different?

This is thus a contest that Mr Macron can win. But he needs to sound the right note—of determination but not arrogance. He should control his tendency to Jupiter-like haughtiness. His fight is not only to defeat unreasonable unions, but to win the allegiance of everyone else. The French often fear change as an assault on their way of life. Mr Macron needs to persuade the silent majority that, far from destroying public services, his growth-boosting reforms are the best way to save them.