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French strikes: So the government has compromised but what happens next?

French strikes: So the government has compromised but what happens next?
Will the government's concession be enough to end the strikes? Photo: AFP
After more than a month of strikes on the French transport network, the government has offered a major compromise in the dispute over pension reform. So what does this mean for strike action this week?

Some unions saw it as a pivotal compromise, others as a sly strategy by the government to divide and conquer the strike movement. 

But after more than a month of pension reform strikes, with both unions and government refusing to budge, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he was offering a “a constructive and responsible compromise” this weekend.

The ongoing dispute is over plans to reform the French pension system. For a full look at exactly what is proposed, click here.

Philippe announced that he was willing to drop the pension 'pivot age' that had been a major bone of contention.

The government had been proposing the keep the legal pension age at 62, but introducing a 'pivot age' of 64, when a full pension would kick in – so people could still retire at 62, but would get less than their colleagues who continued working until they were 64.

But with many other contentious issues still on the table, it's not all over just yet.

Here is a look at what will likely happen next. 

What are the unions saying?

The unions are split into two camps over the PM's offer.

On the one hand are CFDT, CFTC and Unsa, the so-called ‘moderate’ unions who are supportive of pension reform, but who since the beginning have said that the ‘pivot age’ was a deal breaker. 

These unions welcomed Philippe’s announcement and said they were ready to negotiate. The CFDT leader called for its members not to demonstrate over the coming days, but the Unsa union for national railway workers maintained its strike call on Sunday.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez has promised to be the last man standing in the fight against the government's pension reform. Photo: AFP

But on the other hand the more hardline unions – CGT, Force Ouvriere and Solidaires – show little sign of budging.

CGT head Philippe Martinez played down the impact of the CFDT and Unsa's readiness to resume talks, and spoke of internal splits within these groups.

“We will see” what these unions' workers have to say on the issue, he said in an interview with BFMTV on Saturday, reiterating his call for the government to withdraw the pension reforms completely.

The country’s largest teacher’s union Snuipp-FSU also called to continue the protest movement after Philippe's weekend announcement.

“This measure is just spin to divide the unions,” spokesperson Francette Popineau told The Local.

Popineau said the teachers had planned two new strikes this week, one on Tuesday, January 14th and another on Thursday, January 16th.

“This doesn’t change anything for us. This is an unfair reform that will have us working longer for less,” she said, adding that the new reform could have teachers working until 66 anyway – pivot age or not – as they would study for five years before beginning their careers, then work for 40 years before retiring.

Protests in Paris and other big French cities have turned tense following recent reports of both police violence and violence by so-called black bloc protesters. Photo: AFP

What next?

“The end of the pivot age does not mean the end of the strike,” commented French daily Le Parisien on Sunday.

Unions have called for protests to continue, and a new major demonstration has been set for Thursday, January 16th. 

Meanwhile, the government is not budging on the main objective of its reforms – to replace the country's 42 existing pension schemes with a single, points-based system it says will be fairer and more transparent.

But, although it is arguably the biggest concession yet, the abandoning of the pivot age is not the first time the government has adapted the proposed reforms.

Originally presented as a universal, one-size-fits-all reform with equal rules for everyone, the growing concessions and exceptions have prompted some to ask if its ‘universal’ character is now watered out. 

ANALYSIS: We may be several weeks away from an end to French pension strikes

 

Women dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter performed a dance while singing à cause de Macron (it's Macron's fault') during the protests in Paris on Saturday, January 11th. Photo: AFP

How will it impact transport services?

But even if the CFDT, CFTC and UNSA all end their strikes, would the country’s transport would be return to normal? 

Not necessarily. Despite it being the country’s largest union, the CFDT represents a fairly meager part of the country’s railway sector – only 3.68 percent of the Parisian rail operator RATP and 14.3 percent of the national rail operator SNCF.

Unsa on the other hand represents the most of the RATP – 30.19 percent – and has more clout when it comes to impacting the Paris transport system. 

The more radical CGT and Sud-Rail unions are heavily represented among SNCF train drivers.

That being said, the transport situation has already been steadily improving in recent days, as workers feeling the financial burden of the strikes have returned to work.

“It is clear that some colleagues want to go back to work,” one disillusioned Paris Metro worker told AFP during demonstrations on Saturday, adding that the strikes were getting “tricky financially.”

All Metro lines were open on Monday, January 13th, albeit many of them offering a restricted service.

READ ALSO: How to claim compensation on your Paris Navigo pass

Who will cave first?

This is the million dollar question. Unions are meeting among themselves on Monday and will meet with Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud on Tuesday. 

“We have to win this,” said teacher’s union representative Popineau, adding that there was no question who would be blamed if the strikers ended up losing the battle. 

“There will be a lot of resentment towards the unions that pull out of the strikes,” she said.

“People are very angry. When people keep this kind of anger inside, it can be very damaging.”

Assuming there is no deal in the next couple of days, unions are calling for another 'protest day' on Thursday, January 16th, with one-day walk-outs from professions including teachers and demonstrations in the major cities.

Read all our strike coverage here.


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