French unions agree to lift strike at nuclear plants

French labour unions and state electricity group EDF said on Friday that a weeks-long strike at several of the country's nuclear power plants would be lifted after a pay deal was reached.

French unions agree to lift strike at nuclear plants
An employee of EDF wearing a red working vest of French trade union General Confederation of Labour (Confederation Generale du Travail - CGT) during a strike at the Gravelines Nuclear Power Station, in Gravelines, northern France, 20th October 2022. The text on his back reads, "For 75 years, public service has been an energy of the future". Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

The strike, launched on the 13th September, threatened to delay efforts to bring over half of France’s nuclear reactors back online, just as the country is facing potential power restrictions and shortages from Russia’s clampdown on natural gas exports to Europe.

It also risked snowballing into a general strike against soaring inflation, as it came at the same time as a protest by oil refinery workers that has led to petrol shortages across the country.

The pay deal for the nuclear sector will see a five-percent wage hike for the lowest earners, while managers will get a 2.5-percent bump plus bonuses that have yet to be finalised, said union official Franck Redondo.

“If the deal is ratified by unions on Monday, for us the matter is closed. Everyone will be back and working all out to get these plants back online,” said Redondo, an FO union official at the Gravelines nuclear plant in northern France, the biggest in western Europe.

Around two dozen of the country’s 56 reactors, spread across 18 power plants, have been offline for months because of safety risks from defective welds or maintenance work.

EDF has been racing to get them back online before winter, when electricity demand jumps as people turn up the heat and typically spend more time at home.

“The negotiations are over. An agreement will be submitted to labour unions for approval by employees,” an EDF spokesman told AFP.

Employees of Gravelines Nuclear Power Station gather at the entrance, during a strike in Gravelines, northern France on 20th October, 2022. Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

Meanwhile a strike by workers at oil major TotalEnergies continues at two sites — a refinery at Gonfreville near Le Havre in the north, and at the Feyzin fuel depot near the southeastern city of Lyon.

Workers have lifted blockades at other TotalEnergies sites but nearly 20 percent of service stations were without at least one type of fuel on Friday, the start of autumn school holidays, a major travel period.

“I didn’t use my car for as long as possible and worked from home,” said Mickael Grumen, 43, as he waited in a long queue to fill up in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb southwest of Paris, before leaving for holiday in Deauville, northern France.

The CGT union said on Friday it would stage new national strikes on 27th October and 10th November to demand higher wages, after a strike on Tuesday that disrupted public transport and other services, although not as severely as many had forecast.

The protests are the latest sign of growing pressure on President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks to push his reformist agenda through parliament, in particular an increase of the retirement age to 64 or 65 from the current 62.

A similar attempt sparked massive strikes two years ago, before the government abandoned the overhaul amid the Covid-10 outbreak.

READ ALSO: Will strikes and fuel shortages affect the autumn holidays in France?

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Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

Paris regional officials have reportedly asked the French Senate to limit the right to strike during the 2024 Olympics in an effort to ensure smooth operations for public transport.

Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

As unions organise ahead of a day of mobilisation and walkouts on January 31st to protest proposed pension reform, head of the greater Paris region (and right-wing former presidential candidate) Valérie Pécresse ha reportedly requested that the French government restricts the right to strike during the 2024 Games.

A member of Pécresse’s team told Le Parisien that the objective was to place limits on the right to strike in an attempt to stop certain unions from abusing the right and “completely disrupting [public transport] services”. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

However, the proposals were rejected by the French Senate and were denounced by unions as “another attack on the right to strike”.

Although strikes are common in France there are some limits – workers in essential industries like public transport must give 48 hours’ notice of their intention to strike and workers in certain sectors including the army and emergency services are banned from striking.

The French government also has a rarely-used strike-busting power which allows it to force strikers back to work if their actions are affecting the security of the county.

Pécresse’s request came just a few days before the French government was set to debate an “Olympics bill” – which will establish some exemptions to current regulations in the effort of ensuring “smooth running” of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Concerns have arisen regarding the possibility of industrial action during the Olympic Games, which will come after the controversial opening up of competition the Paris public transport system (the RATP). During a speech in mid-January, Pécresse told IDFM that she hoped to create “100 percent guaranteed service during peak hours” on public transport, even during strike action.

Members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet have also expressed apprehension about possible strike action during the Olympics.

The attempt to add amendments that would restrict striking came just a day after French Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, told Télématin that there were no plans to “touch the right to strike”, but that Macron had tasked the ministry with look into setting up more significant warning periods, as well as safeguarded periods for “vacation departures”. The minister also discussed the idea of having reserves of workers who could be mobilised to help during strike periods.

It was a member of Pécresse’s centre-right party – Philippe Tabarot – sought to add amendments restricting the right to strike to the bill, but they were ultimately rejected by the Senate. He referred to strike action at French national rail services (SNCF) during the Christmas holidays – which left 200,000 people without transport – as “intolerable” and said that “the right to strike is now being abused”.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t strike at Christmas’ – fury in France as trains cancelled

According to Le Parisien, Tabraot specifically sought require unions to provide strike notice at least 72-hours ahead of industrial action – instead of the current 48-hours. Additionally, the proposed amendments would make it so unions could not reactive an old “unlimited” strike notice that was filed several years ago and has since gone unused. The latter would attempt to diminish workers’ ability to spontaneously walk out.

And finally Tabarot hoped to add an amendment that would limit ‘short strikes’ by requiring workers to join strike action “at the start of their first shift” that day. This would make it so workers could not walk out in the middle of services for ‘short’ (under 59 minute) strikes.

Even though Tabarot’s amendments were not accepted during this attempt, the elected official said that the Senate would have to return to the subject in the following weeks and months, as the French parliament continues to consider the Olympics bill.