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France looks set for potentially its biggest strike in decades

A member of French CGT labour union poses with a placard announcing the national strike against the proposed reform of the country's pension system in Nantes, France, November 28, 2019.
A member of French CGT labour union poses with a placard announcing the national strike against the proposed reform of the country's pension system in Nantes, France, November 28, 2019. Stephane Mahe, REUTERS.

France is bracing itself for a widespread transport strike starting on Thursday, December 5. This looks set to be the most comprehensive strike the country has experienced in decades. Many are predicting the country will be forced to a standstill. It is possible the strikes could last until Christmas.

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France may be a country with a reputation for protest, but this planned walkout is on an large scale and will affect the daily life of many. All public transport systems will be affected. Many trains have been cancelled, others are running at drastically reduced levels.

The last strike of this potential size was in 1995, when the country was frozen for three weeks.

International travel will be also affected. In an anticipatory measure, Eurostar has cancelled many trains to and from Paris from December 5 at least until December 9. Around one fifth of all flights into and out of France will be cancelled on Thursday.

At the heart of this debate is a controversial reform of the country’s state pension system.

What is the planned pension reform?

French President Emmanuel Macron won the 2017 election with his promise to cut taxes and reform France. But that was before the French public realised exactly what reforms he had in mind.

Macron’s proposed pension reform sounds straightforward. He wants to simplify the complex French retirement system by merging 42 different regimes into one single regime. However, it will specifically have a significant impact on public sectors who until now have enjoyed special retirement systems to compensate for difficult working situations. 

This new system will introduce a ‘points system’ for retirement. This will threaten both the age of retirement and also the financial recompension at the time of retirement. Currently, public sector worker’s pensions are at present calculated on the salary they earned for the last six months of working life – normally the highest for most people – and an assessment of the best 25 years of their career.

The new system will take every year into account. This means that if you had a couple of lean years or became self-employed for a while, or even had health issues that prevented you from working for some time, you will receive a lower pension.

Why are the transport workers particularly upset by Macron’s plans?

Macron’s pension plan specifically targets rail workers. And they are united in their response. They are fighting for the retention of the pension rights for ‘cheminots’.

‘Cheminot’ is the name for the special status for people who work in the French railway system. It is acquired by almost everyone in the industry, from train drivers and electricians to office workers and ticket sellers.

There are many privileges associated with this status. ‘Cheminots’ have a job for life, they cannot be fired for economic reasons. They have regular salary increases and they have a shorter working week. They also are entitled to early retirement, they can retire between 52 and 57, which is a decade before the rest of the working population.

They have a special pension status, their pension is calculated on the last six months that they work and not the last 25 years like most people. They also get drastically reduced train fares of just 10 percent of the actual fare for themselves, their spouses and their children. This all obviously costs the state a lot of money and now the state has decided to tighten its belt.

What do the strikers want?

They want to protect this special status that the government wants to get rid of. Under Macron’s plans, current workers will retain their privilege but new employees will not have access to it.  Staff are determined to fight for the next generation of train workers.

A lot of commuters support the SNCF workers’ rights. According to a poll published by La Tribune, Orange and RTL last week, 6 out of 10 people said they are behind this strike. There is the fear that this reform will just be the first in a number and that allowing it to pass will create a domino effect, destroying France’s public service in general. This is why a lot of commuters are willing to grin and put up with the hopefully temporary transport inconveniences.

Is there any precedence for this kind of strike?

Transport strikes are almost a monthly occurrence in France, but the last time there was a strike of this scale was in 1995, when the entire country was immobilised for weeks. 

France was gripped by the largest strike movement the country had seen in many years, the country was at a literal standstill as the country’s infrastructure was successfully paralysed by hundreds of thousands of strikers. The public supported the strikers, and after three weeks of strikes workers forced Jacques Chirac’s government into a major climbdown over the issue of changes to pensions of public sector workers.

This was the last time the government had attempted to overhaul France’s complicated retirement system. Until now.

What transport will be affected?

Virtually all transport options are involved in this strike. The French public railway company SNCF is one of the biggest in the world and 90 percent of SNCF services have been cancelled for December 5 and potentially ongoing.

RATP operates Paris transport and they say buses, metros, RER trains and trams will all be significantly affected.

Twenty percent of flights in and out of France will be affected, though not longhaul flights, according to France civil aviation authority the DGAC. However, the strike will badly hit Air France services, and both EasyJet and British Airways have signaled that some of their flights will be disrupted as some ground staff and air traffic controllers join the mass walk-out.

Who else is involved in the strike?

Many schools will also be closed, as two teaching unions are also calling for their members to strike on December 5th and to potentially keep striking.

Postal workers in 20 French departments will join the walkout too.

This strike will also potentially involve civil servants, everyone from judges to rubbish collectors. Police and hospital worker unions have said they support the strike too, though as they are unable to shut down operations, they will participate in protests in police stations and off duty staff will stage protests.

How long will the strike last?

This is the million dollar question. The strike is termed as ‘unlimited’.

SNCF and RATP workers will officially down tools and walk out at 10pm on Wednesday night and December 5th will be the first declared strike day. But unions have said that they are planning to strike for weeks if necessary.

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