As pressure ramps up ahead of the grève illimité (unlimited strike) action planned from December 5th, French government spokesman and junior minister Sibeth Ndiaye told The Local that she still believes that France is an attractive country to foreigners with a growing economy.
Speaking at a press briefing arranged by the Anglo American Press Association, she wryly acknowledged that: “France is well known for strikes, from time to time.
“But if you look at the economic data over recent years, it still shows that France is an attractive country to invest in.
“Over the last year there has been an image of France, of the demonstrations, which were sometimes violent, which has not always been pleasant.”
But despite this, she pointed to data which shows that France's economy is growing and the country is becoming more attractive to invest in.
The strike action – which starts on December 5th and could continue given some unions are threatening to turn it into rolling industrial action – is predicted to cause widespread disruption as more and more unions join in.
Unions representing rail workers, Metro drivers, bus drivers, hauliers and airline ground crew have called for “the blocking of all transport” in France.
French government spokesman and junior minister Sibeth Niayde. Photo: AFP
How long it will last is unclear, but one hardline rail union has predicted that its members will be “eating Christmas cake together” (ie still on strike by Christmas).
The Local has already been contacted by worried tourists wondering if they should cancel their holiday plans for December.
December is traditionally a busy time for tourism in France – particularly in Paris where couples come for romantic breaks or to get their Christmas shopping.
Last Christmas was a difficult time for city tourism businesses as ongoing 'yellow vest' protests caused many people to either cancel their trips or avoid city centre locations.
The strike action – which some 'yellow vest' protesters say they will also join – is over planned reforms to France's pension system, which Ndiaye insisted are necessary for the country and that the government will be pressing on with despite the threat of disruption.
She said: “We are making major changes to the system, so some worries and fears are to be expected
“But we believe we need to create a French pension system that is universal, equal, transparent and gives us stability for the long term.
“At the moment there are 45 different pension regimes. For example a driver in Lyon is on a different pension regime to a driver in Paris – even though they do the same work and have the same conditions.
“Both the complexity of the system and the various attempts at reform – from governments on both the left and the right – over the years have left us with a system that people do not have confidence in.
“There is no transparency.
“This is a major change and it affects everyone in the country, so it is legitimate for people to worry and to ask questions and to demonstrate.
“But we as a government will put all our energy into negotiation to move this reform forward to create a system that is universal and equal.”
The planned changes are proving particularly controversial for public sector workers, as the idea of a universal system for private or state employees would do away with many of the 'special regimes' for particular industries.
For example some SNCF employees are able to retire at 50 while Metro staff can retire at 55. Unions says these regimes, negotiated over years, make up for working antisocial hours and, in the case of Paris Metro staff, in polluted underground conditions.
The last major attempt at reform of the French pension system was in 1995 and resulted in three weeks of strikes for public sector workers before Jacques Chirac's government backed down.