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‘Unlimited’ strikes in France in December: What you need to know

Unlimited strike action will be hitting France in December in an increasingly bitter confrontation over reforms to the French pension system - but what will the impact really be?

'Unlimited' strikes in France in December: What you need to know
A one-day strike in Paris paralysed the city's public transport network. Photo: AFP

The strike action was originally called for December 5th by workers on the Paris public transport system (RATP), but more and more unions across France are now planning unlimited action, with some predicting that France will be 'paralysed until Christmas' by the industrial action.

Who is involved?

The December 5th date was first mentioned during a one-day strike of RATP workers – who operate Paris' Metro, bus, tram and certain RER services – after September 13th, when coordinated action from the five unions who represent the transport workers brought the city's public transport to a virtual standstill.

READ ALSO The twelve French phrases for if you get caught up in a strike

The following week the unions involved – CFE-CGC, CGT, FO, Solidaires, Sud et l'Unsa – issued a call for a grève illimité (unlimited strike action) from December 5th in protest against Macron's planned pension reforms.

Since then unions who represent workers on the SNCF train operator have also called on workers to strike, so rail services across France will be affected.

Several other unions representing transport workers including hauliers have also announced that they intend to join the action, potentially broadening the strikes to hit road transport and other sectors across France.

Ground crew at Air France belonging to the FO union have confirmed they will also join in the action, potentially leading to delays and cancellations at airports and one of the air traffic controllers unions are joining in, which will potentially affect all flights going through French airspace.

Away from transport, two teaching unions – including the biggest SNUipp-FSU – are calling on members to walk out on December 5th and possibly beyond.

READ MORE: French teachers to join December strike action

And postal workers in 20 départements – already in dispute with La Poste over changes to working conditions – will strike too.

Some civil servants (fonctionnaires) who are members of the FSU union will be joining the strike, so expect some public or local government offices to be either closed or sparsely staffed on December 5th. Some judges and lawyers will also be joining in and EDF employees have issued a strike notice too, as well as rubbish collectors.

Police and hospital worker unions have also said they will get involved. Police and hospital workers are not allowed to actually walk off the job, so there will be protests in some police stations and off-duty medical staff will be staging protests around the country.

And 'yellow vests?

Yes despite being vehemently anti-union when the movement began, now some 'yellow vest' protesters have also indicated that they will get involved and declare a day of general protest on December 5th.

This could mean that motorway toll booths – a favourite 'yellow vest' haunt since the start of the movement – are targeted, while in Paris police are so fearful that of violence from 'yellow vest' or Black Bloc activists that they have ordered the closure of shops, bars and restaurants in parts of central Paris on Thursday while marches are going on.

What will be affected?

Disruption will be major – the worst to hit France since 1995.

SNCF has cancelled 90 percent of its services on December 5th. Click here for more details.

Both SNCF and Eurostar have also suspended bookings between December 5th and 9th.

In Paris all public transport services – Metro, bus, RER and tram – will be badly hit. Click here for more information. Services to and from the city's main airports will be running in rush hours only.

RATP bosses are reported to be concentrating on keeping commuter lines running and have said that the weekend of December 7th and 8th will be a 'sacrifice' weekend with very few services running.

Bus services across France will also be affected as drivers strike, and one of the haulage unions is also involved, raising the possibility of road blockades.

Around 20 percent of flights have been cancelled due to striking ground crew, click here for more information.

Many parents will be forced to stay home on strike days anyway as teachers and teaching assistants strike and letters will be delayed as postal workers strike.

Exactly what impact the 'yellow vests' joining in will have is hard to say, as their numbers have been dwindling dramatically in recent months, but protests could happen at motorway toll booths, adding to road delays.

There will also be the police-ordered closure of shops, bars and restaurants in central Paris to contend with on December 5th.

How long will it go on for?

At the moment it's not clear, definitely on December 5th and most unions have issued notices for unlimited or renewable strike action.

RATP and SNCF unions have issued notices that they will stop work on Thursday, December 4th at 10pm and that will be for an unlimited period.

Train firms are offering free cancellations or refunds until December 9th – or December 11th in the case of the international operator Lyria – so they are clearly expecting the action to continue for longer than a day.

The Local spoke to one political analysts who said it could last until the New Year. The last time a French government attempted a major pension reform was in 1995, it lead to three weeks of strike action before the government caved.

What is the conflict about?

The protests are over Emmanuel Macron's plans to reform France's pension system.

The current highly complicated French pension system has 42 different regimes, and Macron wants to simplify them into one system that gives the same pension rights to public sector and private sector employees.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: What you need to know to understand why pension reform in France spells trouble

The problem with this is that it would do away with the 'special regimes' enjoyed by many types of public sector workers in France, which often include the right to retire early. For example SNCF train drivers can retire at 50 while Metro employees can retire at 55.

The unions says these special regimes have been put in place over the years to compensate for anti-social aspects of the jobs such as shift work and – in the case of Metro employees – working in polluted and uncomfortable conditions.   

Is there any hope of compromise?

At the moment both sides are talking tough, but it's always possible that a note of compromise will creep in.

Macron told French radio station RTL that he would “not show any form of weakness or complacency” over the issue. He believes that pension reform is important for France's future and needs to happen.

But the unions are also talking tough. Unsa-RATP Deputy Secretary General Laurent Djebali said he and his members are “already expecting to eat Christmas cake together” – ie they expect the strikes to continue until Christmas.

However in recent days there have been talks between the unions and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in an attempt to find a compromise.

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Strikes: Will any French train services be running over Christmas?

As mass transportation strikes in France continue with no end in sight, thoughts have turned to the Christmas holidays and what level of services can be expected on the railways, including international trains like the Eurostar.

Strikes: Will any French train services be running over Christmas?
Photos: AFP

French schools mostly break up on Friday, December 20th, and many families had been planning to make their Christmas getaway by rail over the weekend to see family over the holidays – 1.7 million people had booked tickets in advance.

But rail operator SNCF has now confirmed that services for the first weekend of the holidays will be badly disrupted – with only half the usual high speed TGV trains running.

The rail operator hopes to offer all of the usual services on the budget Ouigo line, but has also confirmed that its 'Junior et compagnie' service for unaccompanied children has been cancelled.

Because signal workers are on strike, the disruption also affects any trains that travel on French railways, including Eurostar – which is running a limited service – and international operators like Lyria and Thalys which are running limited services between France and Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Eurotunnel's Le Shuttle services are not affected.

READ ALSO When do the 2019 Christmas holidays begin in France?

The train services that are running are generally very crowded. Photo: AFP

Could the strikes end before Christmas?

Obviously the way to ensure that all services are running as normal is for the strikes to be called off altogether. And while that is still possible, at the moment it is not looking very likely.

The French government last week unveiled full details of its planned reform of the country's pension system – which includes a universal system for everyone, the end of 'special regimes' that allow people to retire early, better compensation for women who take time out of the workplace to have children and a minimum monthly pension of €1,000 a month.

But unions fear the changes will see many workers losing out on their pension pots.

They are also concerned about the introduction of a 'pivot age'. Although the legal retirement age in France would remain at 62, the government wants to introduce a 'pivot age' of 64 when the full pension kicks in. So people could still retire at 62, but would get a smaller pension than their colleague who worked for another two years.

READ ALSO What you need to know about the proposed French pension reform

So is there any hope of compromise?

Well, some. France's largest union, the more moderate CFDT has said it is not opposed in principle to pension reform, just the pivot age.

“It's very simple: for the CFDT to take another look at this bill, the government must agree to withdraw the pivot age. One point, that's all,” CFDT leader Laurent Berger told Le Journal du Dimanche.
“It is deeply unfair to ask those who were born in 1960 and who are due to retire in 2022 to work longer,” he added.
The government has also given a little ground, when the full details of the pension plans were unveiled last week, it was announced that the changes would not affect anyone born before 1975 – previously it been planning to apply the changes to everyone apart from those born before 1963.
Talks between the government and the unions are continuing on Thursday, with the more hardline unions like the CGT still insisting that only the complete withdrawal of the proposed reforms will end the strikes, there is some way to go.
Is there any likelihood of a break in the strikes?

In a tacit acceptance that a full breakthrough is now unlikely before the holidays, the conversation in France turned to whether unions might agree to a trêve de Noël (Christmas truce).

This has the advantage of securing public goodwill by making sure people's Christmas holidays are not disrupted, and for striking workers could mean a vital bit of extra cash in their pockets before resuming strike action in January.

However, on Tuesday this was ruled out in a joint union statement, with SNCF confirming that services would again be badly disrupted on the weekend of December 21st and 22nd and afterwards.

The operator said it would be able to run half its usual service on the high speed TGV network over the weekend, transporting 850,000 people – just half of those who had booked tickets.

For the budget InOui service there was better news, with most services expected to run.

During the strike period SNCF is publishing detailed timetables on its website at 5pm for the following day's travel.

Rail unions protesting over reforms to labour laws staged a series of intermittent strikes in 2018, which ended generally in defeat as the Macron government pushed its reforms though, so it may be that they lesson some have taken from that is that only all-out strikes are effective.

The CGT union, which is among the most hardline of the French unions, has been blunt on the subject. 

“No truce for Christmas, unless the government comes to its senses before that,” warned Laurent Brun, general secretary of the union's railway branch.

Sud-Rail union is also taking a firm line. Fabien Dumas, the organisation's federal secretary, told French media that discussion among members is now already focused on “the end of the year” for strike action and they are looking to amplify their movement.

Between them the CGT-Cheminots and Sud-Rail unions represent around 60 percent of train drivers, so they are the key unions here.

If there is no truce, will services get better or worse as time goes on?

The other factor that needs to be considered is how many drivers will stay out if the strike action continues over Christmas and hits the one-month mark on January 5th.

French workers are not paid during strikes, although unions often run a cagnotte (collection pot) for donations that are passed on to striking workers.

READ ALSO Striking in France – what are the rules and do workers get paid?

So if strikes continue for a long time many workers – unable to take the financial hit – gradually return to work.

On the first day of the strike action, 85.7 percent of train drivers were on strike. By one week later that had fallen to 71.6 percent, and by December 13th it was 66.8 percent and SNCF was able to run about 20 percent of its normal timetable, as opposed to just 10 percent on the first day of the strike.

Another week of strikes would likely see more drivers returning to work, meaning that even without a break there could be a slight expansion in services.

What do the public think?

Both the unions and the government will also likely be keeping a close eye on public opinion.
Before the strikes started, around 60 percent of French people supported the strikers, a more recent poll from last week showed that had fallen to 54 percent, but mass disruption of the Christmas holidays may tip public opinion against the strikers. 
Only 30 percent of those polled opposed the strike outright.
A poll by the Elabe institute released in the second week of the strikes found France evenly divided over the government's proposed pension reforms, with 50 percent of respondents approving and 49 percent against.

Unions may be hoping for a repeat of 1995 – after three weeks of strikes paralysed the country, and with Christmas looming, Jacques Chirac's government capitulated and dropped its proposed pension reforms.

French newspaper Le Parisien may have captured the public mood over the weekend when it ran a front page asking Father Christmas to make the trains run over the holiday period.