Threat of transport strike recedes ahead of Euro 2016

Industrial action goes down to the wire, just days before football tournament kicks off

France PM Manuel Valls said a strike by train drivers had become “incomprehesible” while CGT chief Philippe Martinez addresses a rally in Fougeres, western France. Photographs: Getty Images

France PM Manuel Valls said a strike by train drivers had become “incomprehesible” while CGT chief Philippe Martinez addresses a rally in Fougeres, western France. Photographs: Getty Images

 

The threat of transport strikes appears to be receding, two days before the start of the Euro 2016 football championship.

However, some disturbances are possible during the month-long games in 10 French cities, particularly on the nationwide day of protest scheduled for next Tuesday.

The SNCF railway company negotiated with trade unions for 19 hours overnight from Monday to Tuesday. Chief executive of the SNCF Guillaume Pépy said: “There is no longer any reason related strictly to the SNCF for any railway worker to go on strike.”

Railway workers nonetheless voted to strike again today, for the eighth consecutive day.  The communist CGT, the most powerful union, said it would “take the necessary time” to decide on the agreement with management.

The strike has been an inconvenience, but has not paralysed the country.  Three in four high speed TGV trains are to run today, two in five regional TERs, and one in two inter-city and Paris region trains.

Under pressure from the government, which wants to end the strike before the Euro 2016, the SNCF abandoned a reform that was intended to make the company more competitive.

Railway workers cannot be asked to work after 7pm on the eve of their day off, or to begin work before 6am following a day off.  The number of hours of night work cannot be increased, nor can the number of days off be diminished. 

In an interview with La Voix du Nord newspaper, President Francois Hollande quoted the historic communist leader Maurice Thorez, who signed an agreement ending mass strikes in 1936.  “One must know how to end a strike,” said Hollande.

The CGT issued a statement to remind the president of the second part of the Thorez quote.  “The CGT agrees with Francois Hollande, with one nuance,” it said. “One must know how to stop a strike when one has obtained satisfaction.”

Railway workers launched an unlimited strike on June 1st, but mobilisation has steadily reduced.  Only 8.5 per cent of railway workers stopped work on Monday and Tuesday, half as many as last week.

An open-ended strike that was to have started in the Paris metro last week never caught on and metro traffic has been normal.

Public opinion

The railway unions have until June 14th to agree to the text proposed by the SNCF. Prime minister Manuel Valls told the National Assembly yesterday that the SNCF strike had become “incomprehesible”.  He called on the unions to demonstrate a sense of responsibility.  “If not,” he warned, “the French will judge them severely”.

Public opinion is turning against the strikers.  According to a BVA poll, 54 per cent of French people disapprove of industrial action ahead of the Euros.  French media have refocused on the national team, Les Bleus.

The government appears to have succeeded in depriving the CGT of the critical mass needed to paralyse the country, by making separate deals with lorry drivers (overtime pay), air traffic controllers (not to cut personnel) and civil servants (pay rises).

It’s important that the Euros be a success if Hollande is to stand a chance of re-election next year.  And chaos during the tournament could scupper French hopes of holding the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Eric Ciotti, a conservative deputy in the National Assembly, accused the labour unions of “taking the country hostage” and the authorities of ceding to them.  “The government backed down, but the blockage continues,” he said.

With the train strike appearing to wind down, attention has turned to a threatened strike by Air France pilots who oppose an attempt to reduce their pay.  The Spaf union says it will strike from June 11th-14th, while two other unions, the SNPL and Alter, say they will strike for three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon and 2½ hours in the evening. 

The government is expected to put pressure on airline management to give in to the pilots’ demands, rather than risk disrupting the Euros.

Petrol stations have returned to normal, though three of eight refineries are still blocked by trade unionists. Sanitation workers have closed two rubbish dumps and four of six garages for collection lorries in the capital.