Why Saturday could be the 'decider' in France's pension strikes

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 11 Feb, 2023 Updated Sat 11 Feb 2023 13:35 CEST
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Saturday marks a new phase in the ongoing battle between the French government and unions over planned pension reforms - and what happens could decide how the conflict plays out. Here's why.


Since mid January, unions in France have been staging one-day mass strikes in addition to demos and local actions in their promised 'mother of all battles' against Emmanuel Macron's plans to reform the French pension system.

Saturday, February 11th, marks a new tactic, and what happens over the weekend could decide how the battle will play out over the next few months. 

READ ALSO 5 minutes to understand French pension reform

Saturday is the fourth day of coordinated action by all eight French union federations, and precedes another strike day on Thursday, February 16th. It is highly likely that more dates will be announced in the days to come.

Calendar: French pension strike dates


But the Saturday action is unusual for several reasons - firstly it is unusual to have one-day strike actions on the weekend, unions usually call single-day strikes for weekdays when they will have the largest impact and they can guarantee the largest numbers of strikers.

Reader question: Why do French strikes always seem to be on Tuesday and Thursdays?

The second reason is that rail unions - the backbone of the strikes so far - have said they will not call on workers to walk out in order to avoid disrupting family holidays, as schools go on their February break.

The weekend also precludes teachers striking, so Saturday is likely to see limited disruption - although city public services may be limited - but unions hope for very large turnouts at the demos in towns and cities across the country. The aim is to equal or beat the 1.1 million people who marched at the beginning of the pensions battle.

But Saturday is significant for another reason - it could shape what happens next.

France's eight union federations have so far been united in their battle, and all strike days have been 'intersyndicale' - involving all unions. But now a split is developing between the more moderate unions who want to continue with well-supported one-day actions and the hardline unions who want to call unlimited strikes and direct action including blockades.

Politics expert John Lichfield explained: "The more moderate unions, especially the CFDT, believe that really stepping up disruption would be calamitous because they believe that although there is a lot of opposition in the country to the pension reforms - polling suggests that around 70 percent of people are against it - a lot of that is 'soft opposition' or opposition to anything the government might do.

Hear John talking strikes with the team at The Local in our podcast Talking France. Download the latest episode HERE or listen on the link below.


"They fear that once you start annoying people and messing about with their holidays, their ability to get to work, fill their car, then support for the unions will collapse pretty quickly, which is why they want to stick to the one-day actions.

"The more radical unions, however, believe that they can essentially hold the government by the throat - if you combine the sort of rail strikes we've seen in the past with the petrol strikes we saw last year that could be really calamitous for the country.

"So this is the dispute that's happening within the union movement - so far the more moderate unions have called the tune, but I think Saturday is the last chance they have to prove that that's working. "

Turnout on Saturday will be crucial after a disappointing day for unions on the most recent strike day of February 7th - just 25 percent of rail workers walked out (down from almost half on the first strike day), and 14 percent of teachers, while most cities managed to run a basic level of service on public transport.


Around France, around 750,000 people took part in demos, a significant fall on the 1 million plus turnout seen at previous events. 

John said: "The numbers fell quite dramatically on Tuesday, lower than the unions expected I think, and momentum is quite important in these things.

"So Saturday will be crucial in the numbers game.

"Unions have - very unusually - chosen to have a day of some scattered strikes but mostly demos at the weekend in the hope that a lot more private sector workers will join in, because it is thought that they are unwilling to take a day off work and lose a day's wages during the week.

"If the numbers are disappointing again on Saturday I think that's definitely a sign that the movement is beginning to fade.

"If numbers go up again on Saturday that's a sign that the present strategy - the strategy of the more moderate unions - of having these big, coordinated days of action putting pressure on the government is working.


"If it fails then I think the more radical unions are going to say 'no, this isn't working, we have to move to open-ended strikes in the key sectors like rail, oil refineries, power stations', which obviously would have a much more direct effect on people, but could also annoy the public and cause the unions to lose the battle of public opinion.

You can keep up with all the latest announcements and service disruptions in our strike section HERE.



The Local 2023/02/11 13:35

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