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OPINION: France’s winter of discontent may become a long, troubled and violent spring

It may be over but it’s not yet finished, writes John Lichfield. France has discovered a new form of social unrest: the chronic-but-not-crippling protest without end.

OPINION: France's winter of discontent may become a long, troubled and violent spring
The strikes may be largely over, but hat doesn't mean there isn't more trouble ahead. Photo: AFP

The ever-shrinking but never-disappearing rebellion by the Gilets Jaunes has entered its 63rd week. The disruptive-but-never-paralysing strike against pension reform is fading but mutating into a kind of social guerrilla warfare.

Trains and the Paris Metro are almost back to normal as men and women drift back to work after seven weeks of slackening strikes.

READ ALSO Paris breathes a sigh of relief as transport gets back to normal after strikes

The Metro is now running largely normally. Photo: AFP

And yet large parts of the Paris southern suburbs were plunged into darkness early today when members of a militant power union turned off the master switch.

Such hit-and-run actions – including two invasions of the Paris headquarters of the pro-reform union federation, the CFDT – will go on for many days. They are, in a sense, an admission of desperation and weakness.

The militant union federations, led by the CGT, have failed to bring the country to a halt and the government to its knees. They have failed to spread their promised “general” strike to other industries.

The only effective stoppages have been by rail and Metro workers and dancers and musicians at the Paris Opera. All enjoy taxpayer-subsidised, sweetheart pension regimes, which will be partially preserved by Emmanuel Macron’s allegedly “universal” new state pension system.

READ ALSO French government finally unveils its pension reform bill – but what's in it?

As well as some Metro and train drivers, ballet dancers are still striking. Photo: AFP

There have been scattered stoppages in other professions, services and industries and almost no protest at all in the private sector. At its height, I calculated that the “general strike”, other than on the six days of protest marches, involved no more than 0.2 percent of the French workforce.

Nonetheless, the militant unions have invested too much in their vastly overblown rhetoric against a messy and badly-explained reform to give up tamely.

Some of their grass roots – high on a bizarre cocktail of revolutionary fervour and self-serving hypocrisy – are now beyond the control of the national leadership.

For many of them, the protest has, from the beginning, been not just about pensions but about defeating the allegedly “ultra-capitalist” Macron.

So has Emmanuel Macron won? Yes, in some respects he has.

The pension reform, in somewhat bedraggled form, will go through the National Assembly and Senate from February to June. The jumble of special pension regimes, which resisted reform attempts by previous governments since 1993, will gradually vanish over the next two decades.

Leaks of the final text of the reform, which will go to a cabinet meeting on Friday, show that the core of Macron’s reform survives. The French, who work less on average than any other western country, will eventually be bribed and chivvied to work a little longer.

Pensions will remain stable or increase in real terms, so long as people work up to, or beyond, a “pivot age”, which will hover around 65 by 2037. Some very low pensions – for farmers, women and the self-employed – will increase from 2022, when the minimum will be established at €1,000 a month.

The present “legal” retirement age of 62 (the youngest in Europe) will survive.  But anyone choosing to retire at that age will be docked part of their pension for the rest of their lives.

READ ALSO How do pensions in France compare to the rest of Europe?

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, left, with union leaders. Photo: AFP 

But wasn’t this “pivot age” dropped by the government 10 days ago at the insistence of the moderate and broadly pro-reform union federations, led by the CFDT?

No, not exactly. There is, understandably, much confusion on this point.

The CFDT objected to plans by the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to bring forward the pivot age. Philippe wanted it to start in 2022 , imposing a “full” pension age of 64 by 2027 – bringing an extra €17 billion a year into the state pension system.

This plan has been withdrawn. The longer-term shift to a pivot or “full pension” age – not  spelled out in the draft law but de facto 65 by 2037 – remains.

This idea makes a rough kind of sense. As we live longer, something has to be done to stop all state pension systems from going bust.  A “de facto” later retirement date will allow  the French to have similar or higher pensions without increasing their contributions or destroying the system.

All of this has been very badly explained and poorly sold. The reform, theoretically merging 42 systems into one, is so complex that it offers endless opportunities for populist misrepresentation.

The failure of the government to sell such a landmark reform has been puzzling and unforgiveable. Emmanuel Macron, who thought of the whole idea for his 2017 campaign, has been more or less absent from the debate since September.

He may, or may not, gain some electoral credit for “facing down the unions” and imposing a necessary and much delayed reform. He scarcely deserves to.

The other great victor may prove to be the moderate CFDT union federation and its leader, Laurent Berger.

The CFDT supplanted the CGT as France’s most supported union federation in 2017. To consolidate that triumph, Berger needed to win symbolic victories over the government – and over the CGT. He needed to prove that his policy of belligerent but constructive engagement brings greater benefits than the CGT tradition of belligerent non-engagement.

The huge numbers seen during early demonstrations have faded away. Photo: AFP

PM Edouard Phillippe’s climb-down on the “pivot age” gave the CFDT this victory. In the long term, that may prove to be a significant turning point towards healthier industrial and union-government relations in France.

In the short run, the dispute will drag on and may become nastier as it fades. The CGT, like the Gilets Jaunes before them, paint Emmanuel Macron as not just a political opponent but an existential enemy –  a hate figure, a threat to the French way of life.

Without explicitly condoning violence, rhetoric of this kind encourages violence in the minds of a minority. The brutality of some French police officers, sometimes but not always under severe provocation, further fuels the flames.

READ ALSO Is there a problem with policing protests in France?

There has already been violence at the end of some union demonstrations, usually from black-clad hooligans. Photo: AFP

The government has more than enough parliamentary support to push through the reform. The blessing of moderate unions may gradually deflate public suspicion, still running at around 50 percent according to polls.

Nonetheless, France’s patchy winter of discontent may give way to a long, troubled and violent spring.






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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.