‘Unlimited’ strikes in France in December: What you need to know

The strike action was originally called for December 5th by workers on the Paris public transport system (RATP), but in recent weeks more and more unions across France plan to join the walk-out, with some predicting that France will be ‘paralysed until Christmas’ by the industrial action.

Who is involved?

The December 5th date was first mentioned during a one-day strike of RATP workers – who operate Paris’ Metro, bus, tram and certain RER services – after September 13th, when coordinated action from the five unions who represent the transport workers brought the city’s public transport to a virtual standstill.

READ ALSO The twelve French phrases for if you get caught up in a strike

The following week the unions involved – CFE-CGC, CGT, FO, Solidaires, Sud et l’Unsa – issued a call for a grève illimité (unlimited strike action) from December 5th in protest against Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Since then unions who represent workers on the SNCF train operator have also called on workers to strike, so rail services across France will be affected.

Several other unions representing transport workers including hauliers have also announced that they intend to join the action, potentially broadening the strikes to hit road transport and other sectors across France.

Ground crew at Air France belonging to the FO union have confirmed they will also join in the action, potentially leading to delays and cancellations at airports and one of the air traffic controllers unions are joining in, which will potentially affect all flights going through French airspace.

Away from transport, two teaching unions – including the biggest SNUipp-FSU – are calling on members to walk out on December 5th and possibly beyond.

READ MORE: French teachers to join December strike action

And postal workers in 20 départements – already in dispute with La Poste over changes to working conditions – will strike too.

Some civil servants (fonctionnaires) who are members of the FSU union will be joining the strike, so expect some public or local government offices to be either closed or sparsely staffed on December 5th. Some judges and lawyers will also be joining in and EDF employees have issued a strike notice too.

The ‘yellow vest’ protesters have also indicated that they will get involved and declare a day of general protest on December 5th.

Police and hospital worker unions have also said they will get involved. Police and hospital workers are not allowed to actually walk off the job, so there will be protests in some police stations and off-duty medical staff will be staging protests around the country.

What will be affected?

We will only know for certain around a day or two before the strike action begins – when RATP and SNCF find out how many workers will actually be on strike and what level of services they can run, but the disruption is expected to be major.

SNCF and Eurostar have already cancelled a number of services and suspended bookings between December 5th and 9th on certain routes.

All transport services in Paris will definitely be affected on December 5th and likely the days after if they chose to continue the strike.

On the September 13th strike the majority of Metro lines were closed altogether, while only a skeleton service ran on the bus and RER suburban train network.

RATP bosses are reported to be concentrating on keeping commuter lines running and have said that the weekend of December 7th and 8th will be a ‘sacrifice’ weekend with very few services running.

Both SNCF and RATP will publish full revised timetables on December 3rd.

Bus services across France will also be affected as drivers strike, and one of the haulage unions is also involved, raising the possibility of road blockades.

Flights may be delayed or cancelled as a result of striking ground crew, letters will be delayed and parents could be faced with finding alternative childcare arrangements, although some schools offer daycare with no teaching when teachers are on strike.

Exactly what impact the ‘yellow vests’ joining in will have is hard to say, as their numbers have been dwindling dramatically in recent months, but protests could happen at motorway toll booths, adding to road delays.

How long will it go on for?

At the moment it’s not clear, definitely on December 5th and most unions have issued notices for unlimited or renewable strike action.

RATP and SNCF unions have issued notices that they will stop work on Thursday, December 4th at 10pm and that will be for an unlimited period.

Train firms are offering free cancellations or refunds until December 9th – or December 11th in the case of the international operator Lyria – so they are clearly expecting the action to continue for longer than a day.

The Local spoke to one political analysts who said it could last until the New Year. The last time a French government attempted a major pension reform was in 1995, it lead to three weeks of strike action before the government caved.

What is the conflict about?

The protests are over Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform France’s pension system.

The current highly complicated French pension system has 42 different regimes, and Macron wants to simplify them into one system that gives the same pension rights to public sector and private sector employees.


ANALYSIS: What you need to know to understand why pension reform in France spells trouble

The problem with this is that it would do away with the ‘special regimes’ enjoyed by many types of public sector workers in France, which often include the right to retire early. For example SNCF train drivers can retire at 50 while Metro employees can retire at 55.

The unions says these special regimes have been put in place over the years to compensate for anti-social aspects of the jobs such as shift work and – in the case of Metro employees – working in polluted and uncomfortable conditions.   

Is there any hope of compromise?

At the moment both sides are talking tough, but it’s always possible that a note of compromise will creep in.

Macron told French radio station RTL that he would “not show any form of weakness or complacency” over the issue. He believes that pension reform is important for France’s future and needs to happen.

But the unions are also talking tough. Unsa-RATP Deputy Secretary General Laurent Djebali said he and his members are “already expecting to eat Christmas cake together” – ie they expect the strikes to continue until Christmas.

However in recent days there have been talks between the unions and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in an attempt to find a compromise.

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