You could forgive the French for feeling less than festive this holiday season. For almost a month now, railway workers have been on strike, bringing the nation’s transport network to a grinding halt. The protesters’ fury is focused on President Emmanuel Macron’s divisive pension reform plans—but with roads at gridlock, buses overcrowded, and pavements packed, it is regular citizens who are bearing the burden.
Major Impact Of France’s Rail Strike
On December 5, a full 85 percent of French train drivers—employees of the SNCF national rail operator—refused to work. Two-thirds of planned journeys had to be cancelled, forcing hundreds-of-thousands of commuters to search for transport alternatives. Since then, the chaos has continued and increased. On Christmas day, fully 40 percent of the nation’s train schedules were cancelled, spelling heartbreak for those whose festive homecoming depended on rail travel.
In the weeks that followed the first walkout, almost half of staff returned to work, but a steadfast contingent have remained unmoved. This union-backed core have yet to signal an end to their action, which is now the longest running strike in France in the past thirty years.
What Are The Main Reasons For The Strike?
The protesters unhappiness flows from Macron’s pension overhaul proposals. The beleaguered president intends to modernize France’s current system, which—with its combination of 42 distinct schemes—is often deemed outdated and cumbersome. A single point-based policy will be more efficient, fairer on low earners, and compatible with the country’s ageing population, Macron argues.
However in the eyes of many on the streets, Macron is simply “the president of the rich”: a man bent on plundering workers’ pockets for the benefit of large banks and the upper classes. At present, French citizens enjoy one of the world’s most generous public sector pension entitlements, receiving upwards of 74 percent of their final salary. Across the English Channel, in Britain, that figure is scarcely 30 percent.
The pension payout sum isn’t the sticking point, however. Under Macron’s plans, citizens will still be in line for their full retirement package—but they’ll have to work two years extra, until 64, to receive it. This “pivot age” setup, which allows staff to retire at 62, albeit on a lower pension, is the issue neither party is willing budge on. For the flag-waving strikers, it is an unacceptable assault on an entitlement they’ve worked their lives to earn. The government, on the other hand, maintains unflinchingly that France’s mushrooming pensions deficit—now equivalent to 100.4 percent of GDP—cannot be brought under control any other way.
Rail Strike Is Hitting France’s Tourism Sector Hard
Caught in the crossfire, local businesses are suffering. With reliable travel options limited, customers are staying away from hotels and restaurants, depriving proprietors of their much needed Christmas and New Year’s bounce. In and around Paris, hotels have recorded a drop in bookings of up to 50 percent. Retailers, too, are feeling the effects, with industry associations reporting turnover declines of 30 to 60 percent compared to last year.
Acknowledging the consequences of the stalemate, the French government has committed to finding a compromise. Some room for concession was found when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met union bosses prior to Christmas. The state will protect 50,000 SNCF employees, Phillippe promised, ensuring that the reforms will cause them no financial injury.
Protesters Have The Upper Hand—And They Know It
For their part, protest leaders backtracked on plans to cancel a popular children’s Christmas travel service. It was a small offering of goodwill, one that reflects the strength of their position. History is on the movement’s side: three weeks of sustained protests derailed the French government’s attempt at sweeping public sector reforms in 1995.
Moreover, although figures have been fluctuating, opinion polls point to continued support for the demonstrators, despite the travel turmoil. Macron’s pensions proposals have implications not just for France’s railway staff, but all public sector employees, and many French citizens view the strikes as a battle being fought on their behalf.
Regardless, the president hoped that as Christmas approached and the delays mounted, sentiment would shift in his favor. But that simply hasn’t been the case, and Macron has found himself making ever more desperate decisions. On December 22, Macron went so far as to announce that we would forfeit his own pension, worth at least than €6,000 a month. It was a surprising move, one designed to tackle the strike’s increasingly personal dimension. Committed to his pro-business neoliberal agenda, Macron—a former investment banker—is often portrayed by protesters as a ruthless, self-serving king.
Critics have dismissed the gesture as a desperate stunt, noting that the president is already a very wealthy man. Macron cannot afford for such criticism to stick. Shaken by a year of gilets jaunes (yellow vest) upheaval—which he survived thanks only to costly concessions—Macron’s administration is on thin ice. If he is to have any hope of re-election in 2022, Macron must stand strong against the striking rail unions and show his ability to follow through on his policies. However if he takes too tough a line and appears overly callus to the concerns of French workers, Macron risks alienating himself entirely from France’s already angry working class.
It’s an unenviable position the French leader finds himself in. To keep his presidency on track and achieve the financial targets his administration considers necessary, Macron must see off the striking railway workers. However in doing so he will likely fully lose the support of the French people in the process, giving him a one-way ticket to electoral oblivion.