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French CRS riot police pursue protesters, during a demonstration by French state-owned railway company SNCF workers and students, in Paris, as part of a nationwide strike, France. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

(reuters_tickers)

By Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) - A standoff between the French government and the country's unions could turn into a national confrontation against President Emmanuel Macron's reforms, a long-time leader of the labour movement said on Thursday.

Macron's government and the unions are clashing over reform of the SNCF state rail company, with two-day strikes set to take place every five days for three months.

Unlike last year's piecemeal fight against Macron's proposed reforms, union opposition is increasingly aligning, said Jean-Claude Mailly, the head of Force Ouvriere.

"The social atmosphere is changing. It's like when the air gets a bit too dry, the slightest spark can set off a fire," Mailly told a meeting with journalists.

In addition to the rolling SNCF strikes, tensions are also growing in lower-profile conflicts over nursing home workers, rubbish collectors, university reform, job losses at the Carrefour supermarket chain and Air France pilots' wages.

Mailly, who has headed France's third-biggest union since 2004, said there was no guarantee the anti-reform opposition would coalesce. But a clumsy comment now by the government could unite the anti-reform forces, he said.

"If it does not start answering our concerns, the situation is going to deteriorate and at some point something is going to happen, that's clear," Mailly said.

France's unions no longer wield the power they did in past decades to mobilise workers on a scale necessary for making governments cave into their demands.

Nonetheless, neither the unions nor the government have forgotten the last time a French leader squared off against rail unions, in a strike in 1995.

It crippled transport for three weeks and eventually forced Prime Minister Alain Juppe to back down and pull the measures -- a defeat from which he did not recover.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by Richard Lough, Larry King)

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Reuters