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Two weeks in and facing Christmas travel chaos, do the French still support the strikes?

Two weeks in and facing Christmas travel chaos, do the French still support the strikes?
The protest movement opposing the French government's pension reform plan still has the majority of the country's sympathy. Photo: Afp
With Christmas just around the corner, there is no end in sight for the strikes paralysing much of France, but faced with the prospect of a badly disrupted holiday are the French still supportive of the strikers?

Two weeks into the strikes that have reduced public transport in France to a bare minimum and, in a later twist, inflicted power cuts on tens of thousands of homes, the latest polls show that public opinion seems to be holding strong.

Studies published this week by the polling institutes Ifop and Elabe both show a 54 percent support for strikes, which were called in response to the government's proposal to overhaul the pension system.

“We’re have not yet reached the moment where the feeling of solidarity is broken,” said Bruno Jeanbart, Deputy General Director at the French polling institute OpinionWay.

Even with the traffic jams, the dangerously overloaded trains, the power cuts and the absent teachers, Jeanbart said that Opinion Way had found “a general sense of understanding” towards the national, cross-sectional protest movement that is trying to push the French government to backpedal on its pension reform plans.

“The most important finding is the huge divide. The pension reform has split the French opinion in two,” Jeanbart said.


The strikes have most dramatically affected commuters in the Paris region. Photo: AFP

But supporting the protest movement is not the same as supporting the disruptive strikes.

In the days following December 5th, the first day of the strike, around half of the country (52 percent) of the people asked said they supported the movement protesting the government’s pension reform. At the same time, around half the country (54 percent) said they opposed the transport strikes. 

With Christmas just around the corner and no truce in sight, Opinion Way’s research shows that public opinion remains pretty much unchanged.

“The 'strike fatigue' has yet to kick in,” Jeanbart said.

The proportion of people saying they support the government’s reform also remains stable at around 39 percent.

As for the demographics, Jeanbart said the supporters the pension reform are generally older (pensioners tend to be highly supportive), belonging to Macron's centre-right or the Republican right on the political spectrum.

The opposing side is younger and left-wing people, but also includes a chunk comprised of the far-right. Proponents of the reform tend to be highly educated, while those opposing it are overwhelmingly working-class.

READ ALSO Unions threaten power cuts across France as strikes continue

Could Christmas be the turning point?

A big question is whether the split will remain stagnant over the holidays, or if Christmas turns into a pivotal moment. Both the Ifop and Elabe polls found that a majority of the people asked would like a Christmas 'truce' in the strike action – 55 and 63 percent respectively.

 

 

Both sides have used the holiday card to put more pressure on the other.

“Christmas is an important moment,” said French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last week. “I don’t think the French people would accept that certain people would deprive them from it.”

READ ALSO Will any trains services be running in France over Christmas?

Who will be painted as the Grinch?

Lex Paulson, an American attorney and professor in political culture at the Sciences Po University in Paris, said Christmas could sour the French opinion of the strikers.

“The more people are affected the worse it gets,” he said, cautioning about putting too much of an emphasis in polls that reflected the sentiment of country at large, when the strongest impact of the strike is in the Paris region.

Worried about being pinned as the Grinch who stole Christmas, transport sector strikers have repeated that they did not set the schedule for introducing this reform – the government did.

“We consulted for two years and they announce it just before Christmas. We didn't choose this,” SNCF-worker Kamel told The Local.

Many people marching at a protest in Paris on Tuesday carried banners with slogans refuting the claim that they were stealing Christmas. Jean-Marc, a judge and protester who had dressed up as Santa for the occasion, waved a sign with a picture of President Emmanuel Macron wearing a Santa’s hat.

“I’m here to show who the real Grinch is,” he said.

 

“The grassroots have radicalised”

Who will take the blame if things don't get better over the holidays will depend on the government’s next steps, said Jeanbart. Right now, the general feeling is that the government is at least as responsible as the strikers for the gridlock.

“If the government makes important concessions this week, they could sway the public opinion in their favour,” Jeanbart said.

READ ALSO: French PM meets defiant unions in bid to break pension strike deadlock

At the same time, he said, the base of the strike movement is more radical today than when the strikes began. Concessions that could have been pivotal to the unions a couple of weeks ago, might prove too small today.

“We could find ourselves facing a lasting movement,” Jeanbart said.


French strikers have been dressing up as Santa to emphasise that Christmas is just around the corner. Photo: AFP

How will the strikes affect Macron?

Whatever the outcome, Jeanbart said the protest movement will severely hurt the French president.

“Even if Macron 'wins', it will have radicalised the part of the population that didn't like him,” he said.

But Paulson said he doubted the protest would have an impact on the public sentiment towards Macron.

“The natural mood of the French people is to hate their president at all time,” he said.

“Macron didn't improvise this, this was part of the program, he genuinely thinks (the reform) is a good idea.”

“I think Macron will win.”

 


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