Workers across France are striking as part of a national wave of industrial action, that has seen protests against reforms to the state pension system. Train and bus drivers, air traffic controllers, energy workers, truck drivers, teachers, students, police officers, lawyers, judges and street cleaners are all threatening to stay off work for an indefinite period from December 5.
French rail transport is being hit hard, with 82% of drivers on strike and at least 90% of regional trains cancelled. In Paris, 11 out of 16 metro lines have shut completely. In other sectors, 30% of domestic flights have been cancelled and 70% of primary teachers are on strike, which means around 40% of schools are closed. Truck drivers planned to blockade roads and tollbooths. The strikes are against government plans to remove 42 “special” pension schemes and switch to a universal points-based pension system for all workers, public and private. The finer details of the reforms are still unclear, but the direction points towards workers having to work for longer, with less generous pensions when they retire.
The reform would mean pensions are based on a career average rather than a final salary calculation, as it currently is. And workers would have to accumulate a number of points (based on time worked) in order to start taking their pension. Under current pension regimes, some workers such as train drivers can take their pension from the age of 52, which was originally seen as compensation for tough working conditions such as difficult hours and shift work. The changes would mean a rise in the retirement age, currently to 62, and would end differential treatment.
French rail transport is grinding to a halt. Teachers, truck drivers, lawyers and judges are also threatening to strike indefinitely.
The strike has a relatively high level of public support. According to one opinion poll, 46% support the strikes but other reports show 69% backing. But polls also show that 76% of French people are in favour of pension reforms. This is because the strike is more broadly viewed as protest action against the president, Emmanuel Macron and the government in general.
Over the last 15 years, France has introduced radical changes into its labour law, which has accelerated under Macron. He was elected in 2017 with a clear manifesto to reform, and put a halt to, the “régimes spéciaux” (special employment schemes) that exist mainly in France’s public sector, which has more advantageous employment rights than the private sector.
In 2018 the government was able to push through reforms to change the protected status of railway workers. There was a showdown but the government won this battle. Now, it is looking to carry through one of the most controversial reforms set out by Macron. His government is holding firm, saying that the changes “will go through because they are necessary and fair”.
Chances of success
French trade unions have had several battles with the government in the last 15 years, but apart from protests in 2006 – which halted the introduction of a new employment contract for young workers – governments have managed to push through changes to the labour market.
The inability of railway workers to stop Macron’s reforms in 2018 was a big defeat for trade unions. But in the current strike, railway workers have been joined by a number of other public and private sector groups, which strengthens the movement and lends itself more to public sympathy. The scale of the strike has been compared to the movement in 1995, also against pension reform, which forced the government of then Prime Minister Alan Juppé to reverse plans to change the system.
Since the emergence of the yellow vests in November 2018, some argue that this has given workers a renewed confidence in the effectiveness of collective action. The yellow vest movement proved that protesting could still make the government back down. While the yellow vest movement has dissipated somewhat and the demands have become more fragmented, the underlying sense of injustice has not. This provides a perfect set of conditions for a mass protest movement to emerge.
Despite a stereotype of its being a heavily unionised nation, France has one of the lowest levels of trade union membership density among OECD countries. Only around 8% of workers are members of a union. But trade unions in France are still embedded in a number of institutions and 90% of workers are covered by a collective agreement, which means most workers terms and conditions are regulated by agreement between employers and trade unions.
Unions also benefit from a high level of worker representation in organisations. Elected representatives participate and negotiate at all levels of organisations and enjoy a legal framework for employee representation that is the envy of trade unions in other countries such the UK, including a right to strike enshrined in the French constitution.
Nonetheless, the current strikes are a test of strength for the French trade union movement, which has been more defensive since the 2008 economic crisis. It reflects a return to the more radical history of French unions, fighting to improve and maintain worker rights. They have long seen it as their responsibility to neutralise what they view as a neoliberal project, which aims to reduce employment protections and increase labour market flexibility and employer discretion in the workplace. And to defend the hard won rights (“aquis sociaux”) – like decent pensions – that public sector workers enjoy. But they are faced with a French government and president intent on carrying out the reforms that are central to their mandate.