French strikes worsen but tension lessens

France has adopted strategy to prevent a ‘coagulation’ of discontent that could disrupt Euro 2016

If one judged only from the strikes this week, the showdown between the communist CGT trade union and the French government over the new labour law would appear to be worsening.

But 10 days before the start of the Euro 2016, the government has adopted a clear strategy to prevent a "coagulation" of discontent that could disrupt the football championship.

A law on “minimum service” passed under the previous administration should also mitigate disruption.

The railway company SNCF announced that six in 10 high-speed trains will operate under the open-ended strike that began last night.  Half  the regional TER trains, four in 10 suburban RER trains, and one in three inter-city trains will function.


Despite a strike announced for Thursday, the RATP announced, Paris metro and bus traffic will be normal or “almost normal”.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the Euros is an Air France pilots' strike lasting more than six days, but whose date has not yet been chosen.  France expects 2.5 million foreigners to attend the championship.

Paris rubbish collectors have blocked two incineration plants outside the capital.

Six of the country’s eight petroleum refineries are shut down, and there are conflicting reports regarding the severity of petrol shortages.

Though opposition to the new labour law is the ostensible reason for the strikes, the legislation will not directly affect public sector workers in the SNCF, RATP or energy production. Suspecting that strikers were using the protests to defend their own sectoral interests, the government has in recent days attempted to divide and rule.

There is a precedent. In mid-May, the government promised lorry drivers that a section of the labour law decreasing overtime pay would not apply to them. The drivers stopped blocking roads and went home.

The transport minister Alain Vidalies circumvented the management of the SNCF to negotiate a sweetheart deal with railway workers, under which they will keep all earlier privileges – guaranteed lifelong employment, a 35-hour working week, free train tickets, their own healthcare system and early retirement.

Based on these negotiations, two unions regarded as reformist agreed not to join the train strike, or to work for a “rapid resolution”. The CGT and Sud-Rail have nonetheless maintained their call for industrial action.

The government handed out more than €4 billion to students, farmers and civil servants in the first four months of the year. In recent days, it has again loosened the purse strings, in the hope of preventing a critical mass of dissatisfaction in the run-up to Euro 2016.

On Monday, president Francois Hollande rescinded a decision to cut €134 million in funding for research, after vehement protests from scientists.

Yesterday, education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem announced €1 billion in new spending, resulting in a €50 a month pay rise for teachers.

Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls insist they will not withdraw the labour law or change article 2, which weakens the power of unions. But the tone is more conciliatory. Valls talked to the CGT leader Philippe Martinez on the telephone at the weekend. For his part, Martinez no longer demands the complete abrogation of the law.

A proposed compromise would give unions a droit de regard or right to express an opinion – but not a veto – on agreements reached within a company between management and employees.

The most antagonistic exchanges are between the business federation Medef and the CGT. Pierre Gattaz, the head of the Medef, said the government should make sure "that minorities who behave like thugs, like terrorists, don't block the whole country".

Martinez said he would sue for defamation.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor