France set for virtual shutdown as open-ended strike to begin

Diverse range of workers to protest against Macron attempts at pension-system reform

A poster stating “All on strike on December 5th” at the Bourse du Travail during preparations for a national strike against French government pension reform plans, in Nice, France. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

A poster stating “All on strike on December 5th” at the Bourse du Travail during preparations for a national strike against French government pension reform plans, in Nice, France. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

 

France is set to plunge into an open-ended, nationwide strike of unusual proportions as of 10pm on Wednesday. The action is expected to continue for days, possibly weeks.

The country will virtually shut down on Thursday when air traffic controllers and ground staff at airports, public transport employees in the Paris metro and SNCF railway company, and teachers, students, police, employees at the EDF electricity company, rubbish collectors, lawyers, opposition parties and the yellow-vested gilets jaunes stop work and join protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to reform the pension system.

Air France said it would cancel 30 per cent of domestic flights and 15 per cent of medium-haul flights. Ninety per cent of high-speed TGVs will be cancelled. Only 3 per cent of regional TER trains will run.

International traffic will also be severely affected, with only one in two Eurostar trains running between the UK and the Continent. Two-thirds of Thalys trains between France, Belgium and the Netherlands should operate, but there will be zero rail traffic between France and Germany, Italy and Spain. Eleven Paris metro lines will shut down completely.

Strike ‘unlimited’

Workers at the Paris public transport authority RATP and at the SNCF say their strike is “unlimited”, raising the spectre of a “black December”.

Two factors mitigate against a long strike. Employees are not paid for strike days, and they risk antagonising public opinion if chaos continues in the run-up to Christmas.

The SNCF has announced it will reimburse all train tickets for December 5th-8th, and strikes are expected to continue at least until December 9th.

Forty per cent of French primary schools will remain closed on Thursday, when 60 per cent of lycée professors will also stop work.

Under a law enacted by the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, public sector workers are required to provide “minimum service” on strike days. But the percentage of strikers is so high that the rule is likely to fall by the wayside.

The Paris police prefecture has told shopkeepers and café and restaurant owners between the Gare du Nord and the Place de la Nation, in northern and eastern Paris, to shut down on Thursday and remove “all furniture or equipment which could serve as a projectile or weapon”. The prefecture based its instructions on the “very tense context of social protest”, which could lead to “violence and vandalism”.  

Police unions joining in

The government fears rioting like that which marked gilets jaunes protests from November 2018 through to last spring. But it will be handicapped by the fact the two main police unions, Alliance and Unsa, are also joining the strike, in protest at the threat to their special pension regime, which includes early retirement.

In a note transmitted to all police units, the national police directorate reminded French police of their “duty of neutrality” and “loyalty to the institutions of the Republic”. Police are banned from demonstrating while on duty, or while wearing their uniforms. The police unions say they will symbolically close commissariats for several hours at a time and create go-slows at airports and highway toll booths by stepping up checks there.

A fuel shortage may compound the chaos of the strikes, because construction workers from the public works sector are blockading fuel depots, especially in Brittany, to protest against the planned end of a tax exemption on diesel for construction equipment.

Leaderless gilets jaunes

The authorities fear that unions will not be able to control their members, who have been inspired by the success of the leaderless gilets jaunes in forcing Macron to cancel a planned fuel price hike last year. Macron saved his presidency at a cost of €17 billion in additional spending and four months of nationwide town hall meetings.

Street protests and strikes are a recurring ritual in France, but the movement that will begin on Wednesday night is different because for the first time it is fighting ambiguous plans, not a written draft law.

Macron has promised to meld 42 different pension regimes into a universal system where every euro contributed would entitle all employees to the same benefits. He promises it will be fair, but has not said what age groups will be affected, or when it will take effect. The uncertainty has created widespread anxiety. Polls show two-thirds of the French oppose a reform they do not understand.

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