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‘We don’t have a choice’: French unions explain why they’ve brought France to a halt

With much of France at a standstill on a second day of a nationwide strike against pension reforms four of the country's biggest unions tell The Local why their cause justifies the huge level of disruption.

'We don't have a choice': French unions explain why they've brought France to a halt
Unions say striking is their only option. Photo: AFP

French unions began a mass general strike across France on December 5th that saw railway workers, Metro and bus drivers, hauliers, teachers, airline ground crew, air traffic controllers and postal workers all join the mass walk-out.

Their goal is to force the government to drop a controversial new pension reform that they believe will leave many people having to work longer for lower monthly pensions.

The strike entered its second day on Friday with unions warning they are prepared to continue their fight until Christmas if the government does not respond to their concerns.

Those worries centre around changes to France's complicated pension system.

Currently, there are 42 different systems, so the age you can retire and the level of pension you get depends on where you work.

For example SNCF train drivers and Metro drivers can retire at 50 and 52 respectively, with the average employee of RATP (which runs the Paris public transport network) getting a monthly pension of €3,705. 

In comparison, anyone who doesn't enjoy a 'special regime' for pensions – generally people who work in the private sector – can retire at 62 – the legal age of retirement in France and get an average pension of between €1,260 and €1,460 a month.

The difference is mostly due to how pensions are calculated. For the majority of people in the private sector their pension is calculated based on their salary over 25 years, but some special regimes calculate pensions based just on the salary of the employee during their final six months of work.

The reform that French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed creates one universal system so everyone's pension is calculated in the same way, taking into account the employee's whole career and introducing a points based system for pensions and potential early retirements.

Unions say this will penalise people who have been through a period of unemployment, taken a career break or started on a very low salary.

French President Emmanuel Macron referred to the strikers as “dominated by employees of big transport businesses” with “categorical demands that would penalise the society at large.” 

Unsurprisingly, the unions do not agree with him.

Before the strikes began we asked some of France's biggest unions to justify bringing France to a halt.

READ ALSO: Flights, trains and buses – your questions answered about France's December strikes

Strikes against pension reform in 1995 caused huge disruption for three weeks until the government backed down. Photo: AFP

CGT – Confédération Générale du Travail

“Striking the only means to obtain social progress in this country,” said Benjamin Amar, political spokesman for the CGT. 

“You have to use le bras de fer (strong-arming, further explained here).”

The CGT was the leading trade union during the 1995 strikes, when Jacques Chirac's government tried to push through another unpopular pension reform. After three weeks, the government abandoned the reform. 

The current reform, Amar said, would have “catastrophic social consequences” for French workers. 

“Macron is the president of the patronat (the employers). The reform is a gift in disguise to them,” he said.

“Believe me, we would prefer to sit down around a table if we could.

“No one likes striking. It’s tough on our wallets, our physical and mental health. But we need to mobilise to defend our rights.”

“British workers know what we’re talking about. [Former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher broke down the unions, and who is defending their rights now? No one.”

So how long is the CGT prepared to keep the strong-arming going?

“We’re not talking numbers. This is not math, it’s a deep-set anger. Our workers are angry,” he said, adding: “And I prefer that they express their anger together with us rather than through the far-right, like in other countries.”

READ ALSO France's December strike: Expect major disruption that could last until New Year

CGT members in Paris went on strike in September to protest the government's pension reform. PHOTO: AFP

FO – Force Ouvrière (Worker’s Force)

FO was created in 1948, following an internal split in the CGT. Historically the FO members have been skeptical of the Communist Party’s influence on the CGT. FO is today France’s third largest union, behind CGT and CFDT. 

“This is not just about defending the special regimes,” said FO's General Secretary Yves Veyrier.

“We talk a lot about the rail workers, but in reality the reform will negatively impact the French population as a whole.”

Veyrier is referring to that the reform will change the way pensions are calculated for everyone, both public and private sector workers.

“We have been telling the government this for two years now, but no one is listening,” Veyrier said.

But does this justify paralysing the whole country? 

“We don't have a choice. It's not like we enjoy striking,” he said.

A lot of the workers worry about losing their salaries, Veyrier said, which could impact how long they can keep the strike going. 

“But we won’t go home on December 5th saying ‘well that was a good strike, shame we didn't achieve anything',” he said.

“In that case we'll be back at it on the 6th.”

READ ALSO OPINION Why pension reform always spells trouble in France

“Keep the 42 regimes,” reads the banner held high by FO protesters walking through Marseille in October. PHOTO: AFP

UNSA – Union nationale des syndicats autonomes 

“I’m afraid this is the only option we have,” said Dominique Corona, chief pension negotiator for UNSA, the umbrella union representing both public and private unions.

Among UNSA's members is one of the country's largest teachers’ unions, and a union representing parts of the RATP transport system (UNSA-RATP).

“The government keeps saying they don’t want teachers to lose money, but they don’t say how they will prevent it,” Corona said.

In an echo of FO's Veyrier, Corona said the government is claiming to be looking for solutions, but isn’t coming up with anything substantial.

“This strike is not about punishing the government, it's about finding solutions to improve the way France works.”

But is paralysing the whole country really the right strategy for achieving this?

“This is France,” Corona said. 

“I would much rather live in a country where we didn’t have to pull a strike to get answers from the government.”

“It’s not us who don’t want to cooperate. It’s him [President Emmanuel Macron] who doesn’t want to cooperate with us,”

So how long are they prepared to keep the strike going?

“The 6th, 7th, 8th.. This could go on for a very long time,” Corona said.

“Unless of course the government comes up with something before then. In that case, we won't strike.”

READ ALSO: French teachers to join transport workers in December strikes

Doctors, lawyers, pilots and nurses protested the proposed pension reform in September in Paris. PHOTO: AFP

SNUipp-FSU – National Teachers' Union

Joining in on the strike is also France's largest teacher's union.

“This not something we do for fun. We would much rather be in class,” said Francette Popineau, Co-General Secretary and spokesperson of the union.

Referring to the reform as “monstrous” Popineau said she feared it would push French teachers into poverty. 

She sees the President as detached from the French population  “I don’t think he understands,” she said.

“He’s never been elected before, never been mayor. He didn’t have to look the people he ruled over in the eye at the bakery every morning.”

But, again, is that good enough reason to disrupt the whole country?

“The problem in France is that our system is completely vertical. All decisions come from above,” Popineau said.

“Striking is a right we use when there isn't any dialogue. It's a last resort.”

The teachers' union is undecided as to whether or not they will continue the strike after December 5th.

“Obviously it’s a complicated situation for us seeing as we are responsible for the children,” Popineau said, adding that she hopes the government will come up with a solution on the 5th.

“But we are ready to stay on the streets if necessary,” she said.


Member comments

  1. Seems the unions with the best retirement (sweet) deals now are the ones striking. And that’s only 8% of the workforce.

    They don’t want to live like all the private-sector schlubs (92%), I guess.

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Macron faces strike as French unions flex muscles

French schools, trains and businesses are set to be affected on Thursday by the first major strike called since the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron in April, as unions push for wage hikes and the end of planned pension reform.

Macron faces strike as French unions flex muscles

The extent of disruption remains uncertain, however, with the strike a test for the CGT union behind the protests, which is seeking to build support for a lengthy battle with the centrist government.

Macron has approved wage hikes for civil servants and teachers and put in place one of Europe’s most generous anti-inflation safety nets that has capped energy prices for households and held down inflation.

But his insistence on raising the retirement age from its current level of 62 — one of his main re-election campaign pledges — has stirred up unions and other left-wing opponents and remains broadly unpopular around the country.

“We are against pushing back the age of retirement because we consider it an aberration when there are so many unemployed people in this country,”

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the BFM broadcaster on Tuesday.

“Keeping people with work in their work means that people who haven’t got any can’t find it,” he added.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age from the current age of 62, one of the lowest in Europe, with changes set to take effect next year.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker has argued that pushing back pensions and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without increasing taxes.

His centrist party lost its majority in parliament in June, severely undermining his ability to push through changes.

Macron’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne nevertheless told AFP Thursday that the government would not seek to tack on the pension reform to a wider social security budget law as initially planned.

“There are important questions we want to open talks about” with other political parties, unions and employers’ groups, Borne said.

“We’re starting from the assumption that we’ll be able to hold a dialogue,” she added — although parts of the opposition completely reject any changes.

“If the president insists on declaring a social war on the people, we will respond with all the means at our disposal,” the parliamentary leader of the France Unbowed (LFI) political party, Mathilde Panot, tweeted on Wednesday.


Thursday’s strike has been called by the CGT, France’s second-biggest union, with backing from smaller partners Solidaires and FSU.

The influential CFDT and hard-left FO unions have declined to take part, underlining splits in the country’s once formidable labour movement which has struggled to stop Macron’s economic and social security reforms since he came to power in 2017.

Around one in 10 schools in Paris are expected to shut for the day on Thursday, while 300 will close in the southern Bouches-du Rhone area which includes Marseille.

“We can really see that teachers are fed up with their salaries… if on top of that, there’s the issue of pensions, it risks creating  some sparks,” said Guislaine David from the Snuipp-FSU union.

SNCF railways and the RATP metro system in Paris are also bracing for disruption to services, while employees of oil and gas giant TotalEnergies have been on strike since Tuesday.

Despite anger over the soaring cost of living, Macron is in a hurry to push through pension reform, which he first promised in 2017 before pausing in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to the president told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” the minister said.