Strikes continue as Air France, rail workers and students fight against reforms

Christophe Simon, AFP | File photo taken on April 3 shows commuters standing in a crowded train at Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris as rail workers launched their latest two-day strike.

Air France staff kicked off another two-day strike on Monday joining rail workers for a second month of stoppages in a bitter feud pitting workers and students against the government over President Emmanuel Macron’s labour reforms.


In the latest sign of the deepening industrial row to grip France, the Prime Minister Édouard Philippe met Monday with unions in an effort to defuse tensions with state-run railway SNCF that has seen rail services disrupted for much of last month.

While unions agreed to stick to their programme of striking for two days out of every five through the end of June, there was a split between the hardline and moderate unions with the latter saying they were open to further negotiations.

The prime minister confirmed his government was open to absorbing "a substantial part" of the state-owned SNCF railway company and would discuss the issue further with unions.

Groundswell of opposition

Monday’s meeting follows a decision by Air France CEO Jean Marc Janaillac to resign after airline staff on Friday rejected a pay deal designed to end weeks of strikes. Aggrieved staff walked off the job today, embarking on a two-day strike to continue their demands for higher wages.

Since rail and airline stoppages began in early April, the country has been beset by employee unrest and disruptions to transport services. Rail workers are disputing the deregulation of the railway network and an end to job-for-life contracts in overlapping industrial action with Air France.

The strikes have triggered a groundswell of opposition to a raft of reforms, with workers’ unions, civil servants, transport staff and students uniting in the streets in their thousands but thus far having failed to force Macron’s hand.

The French president, who has said he will pursue his reforms “to the end”, appears to have gained some momentum, with public opinion still behind him since his first clash with the hard-left aligned CGT union last October. The latest Ifop survey published Sunday showed 56 percent believe the strikes are “not justified”, a result in line with other surveys since April that favour Macron.

CGT chief Philippe Martinez said last week that as with every strike movement, “there are highs and lows”, though he insisted that the movement remained strong.

But participation rates at rallies have not reached anywhere near the mass numbers seen in previous eras, with Martinez struggling to drum up support for a grand uprising reminiscent of the 1968 student-led anti-government protests.

SNCF management said that the share of staff striking had dropped to 17 percent this week down from more than 30 percent when rail strikes began on April 3.

The strength of the protest movement may have waned but between them, union bosses for Air France, the SNCF and university students are maintaining pressure on the government to roll back planned reforms.

Latest developments

Here are the latest developments on the strike front as France enters its second month of stoppages:

  • Air France

At Air France, 85 percent of flights were scheduled to go ahead for Monday, May 7 on the 14th day of intermittent strike action, as they press for a 5.1 percent pay increase this year.

The stoppages will affect 99 percent of long-haul flights Monday, 80 percent of medium-haul to and from Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, and 87 percent of short-haul flights to Orly and the provinces.

Overall, it’s the lowest number of flight cancellations since the start of the wage crisis.

The government warned Sunday that the state, a minority shareholder of Air France-KLM, would not come "to the rescue" of the company and added that "the survival of Air France is at stake".

The statement followed the resignation of the airline’s CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac. Shares for the flagship carrier plunged when French markets opened Monday.

  • SNCF

Rail workers at SNCF began their eighth round of strikes adhering to a schedule of two out of five days off work starting Monday at 8pm and ending Thursday at 7:55am as Prime Minister Philippe met railway unions for the first time since the beginning of the industrial dispute.

According to the moderate union Unsa, discussions will continue until the passage of the railway reform legislation in the Senate. The bill will first go to the Senate committee on May 23 and is expected to reach the National Assembly by July.

The representatives of the railway workers will meet Wednesday at 5pm (3pm GMT) at the headquarters of the CGT union to decide on how they will proceed.

  • Universities

End of term exams are approaching at university faculties across France, but the protest movement against the government’s so-called Vidal law -- designed to introduce a more merit-based admissions process -- continues at various campuses.

In Nanterre, where students have led a blockade since mid-April, alternative arrangements have been made for assessing coursework and exams have been postponed.

The Tolbiac site, which is part of the Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris-1), was forcibly evacuated on April 20 after students led a month-long occupation of the campus. The premises of the Paris faculty were left in disarray and are now undergoing several weeks of renovation work. Up to 18,000 students who were scheduled to take their exams there this month are to be reassigned to centres in the suburbs of Paris.

Another school blockaded for the past month is the University of Paris-8. On several campuses, administrations have called for more security, and even police to guard the entrances to examination rooms.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning