Paris General Strike
Paris’ Gare de Lyon railway station was eerily quiet on Friday morning as workers staged a general strike against a government plan to reform retirement benefits. Similar scenes played out across France.
The strikes are expected to snarl traffic and disrupt public transport. Airlines have already warned of flight delays.
Unions call for a “massive mobilisation”
The unions are urging people to join rallies and protests in urban centres across the country, which will lead to disruptions in public transport and road traffic. However, unlike previous nationwide strikes, this one will not cripple the entire economy.
The movement against the pension reform plans has been gaining strength, with new sectors and unions joining in to support the movement. Previously, the movement was mainly confined to factional and company negotiations.
As a result, the movement is likely to continue for a while as the French workers show no signs of giving up. The radical-left La France Insoumise party and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s far-left party, the Communist Party, have both thrown their weight behind the strikes. This has only boosted strikers’ determination. As long as the reform plans are based on raising the retirement age, the unions will continue their fight. They have already outlined plans for more frequent and smaller protest days. The aim is to keep the pressure on the government and force it to change its policies.
Disruptions are expected at airports and on public transport
Paris commuters are bracing for another day of chaos on Thursday as public transport workers join those at oil refineries to go on strike. Unions say upwards of two million people are expected to turn out, although official figures are always far lower.
The strikes are causing travel chaos with airlines that operate to and from France, including Jet2 and easyJet, announcing travel warnings. SNCF, the national rail operator, expects to see a large number of trains cancelled or with their schedules adjusted. The Eurostar high-speed service to London has already introduced a reduced timetable.
The protests are likely to pass off peacefully but scuffles with police and vandalism cannot be ruled out. Rallies are being planned in urban centers across the country with attendance expected to reach into the thousands in Paris and larger cities. Other demonstrations are scheduled in the coming weeks. Airports will be impacted as air traffic controllers also go on strike.
The strike is a test of President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve
Amid the chaos, the president has shown no sign of rethinking a plan to impose competitive reforms on the SNCF rail company and to open up energy plants and oil refineries to outside competition. Unlike past French leaders, who used referendums to gauge public opinion, Macron has used a special constitutional power to bypass lawmakers. That move has galvanized protests and infuriated the unions that oppose his plans.
Many of France’s once fearsome unions have called on trash collectors, teachers and others to join the strike this week to keep up pressure on lawmakers and force a U-turn. Some commentators see parallels with 1995, when weeks of strikes brought the country to a standstill and led to the ouster of a centrist government. But it’s not yet clear how long the gilets jaunes, as the protesters are known, will keep striking and disrupting the economy. The strike has already prompted businesses to close, flights to be canceled and famous tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower to be closed to visitors.
Will the strike change France’s political landscape?
The French are no strangers to strikes, but the mass action over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reform is different. Unions are urging workers from the public and private sectors to join protests, hoping that the ensuing turmoil will force the government to retreat.
Teachers, nurses and railway employees are expected to strike; workers in oil refineries and petrochemical plants have been asked to stop work for weeks on end; and even high school and university students have been invited to join the movement. Some experts predict that the impact will be severe, resulting in major ongoing disruptions to rail services and a significant drop in flight traffic.
The movement is gaining support from left-wing political parties, including Jean-Luc Melenchon’s radical-left La France Insoumise. Some are urging the unions to unite or merge, to break the current fragmented landscape that has debilitated French trade unionism. However, this is a risky strategy that could backfire. A more pragmatic approach would be to raise the bar for the majority of votes required to approve a new agreement.