By Michel Rose and Juliette Jabkhiro
PARIS (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Is France back to the old days?
Unionists plan to paralyze public transport, close schools, organize pickets and march through cities on Thursday over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform.
They talk about recreating the spirit of 1995, when Jacques Chirac’s government commandeered tourist boats on the Seine to carry commuters to work and backed off on a pension overhaul after weeks of strikes in the Metro and elsewhere.
But the ability of unions to shut down chunks of the eurozone’s second-largest economy and force governments to back down is not what it used to be.
French strikes have become less frequent, less disruptive and less successful, leaving some unions scrambling for relevance. Changes to the pension system in 2010 and 2014 sparked protests but were adopted.
Macron says the French need to work longer to put the pension system on a sounder financial footing. Unions say funds can be found elsewhere and count on France’s early retirement age and generous retirement benefits to be deeply appreciated.
“What we hear from people on the ground is that there is going to be a massive mobilization,” said Eric Sellini, an official at TotalEnergies’ hardline union CGT.
Two-thirds of people Odoxa polled said the strike action was justified after the government unveiled plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
Sellini said unions are expecting donations to supplement strike funds for workers whose pay is being cut.
“We get a lot of questions from people who don’t usually go on strike about what they need to do.”
The unionists’ aim is to draw on the widespread discontent left over from the COVID and cost-of-living crises to spur their pushback against the pension overhaul which is expected to be debated in parliament in the coming weeks.
“People are just fed up. When we talk to colleagues, they are disgusted that they will have to go on for another two or three years,” said Simone Legendre, a member of the CFE-CGC union representing white-collar workers, who this week went on strike for wages outside an LCL bank and they will also join strike for pensions.
The largest union, CFDT, issued a general call to stop work and join the protests, describing the day as a starting point.
Strikes are expected at refineries and fuel depots operated by TotalEnergies and the local Exxon Mobil unit. Airlines including Air France and IAG-owned Vueling have been asked by the regulator to cancel one in five flights departing from Paris’ second largest airport, Orly.
However, since 2015, France has lost on average fewer working days to strikes than Britain, according to data from the International Labor Organisation, which does not reflect the UK’s most recent strike waves.
THE SONG OF THE SWAN
The looming showdown with the government will be the last chance for militant CGT leader Philippe Martinez, who for many is the face of trade unionism in France, to make his mark before stepping down in March.
Once entrenched in the Communist Party, the CGT, which has threatened to cut electricity to the elite, has lost its position as France’s largest trade union to the more pragmatic and reformist CFDT.
“When there is such a dangerous reform, it is a good sign when all the unions stand together,” the mustachioed Martinez told the France 3 TV channel.
Macron has already set a wave of strikes on his pension plans in 2019, though that early reform push fell by the wayside as the government focused on tackling the COVID outbreak and saving the economy.
While now, unlike in 2019, the CFDT is joining the strikes, it is not yet clear how long its members will persist.
“The strikes will snowball over time, undeniably,” union official Thomas Cavel said with the CFDT’s rail branch. “Workers who were on the front lines during COVID will be affected (by the reform). It’s not fair.”
A 2007 ban on wildcat strikes and strike restrictions to ensure minimum public services have limited the ability of unions to wear down governments’ reform ambitions.
“We are under no illusions,” said Legendre, a member of the CFE-CGC union. “We can’t be sure the government will back down, but we have to give them everything we have. It’s now or never.”
(Reporting by Michel Rose and Juliette Jabkhiro; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Richard Lough and Philippa Fletcher)
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