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

'Unlimited' strikes in France in December: What you need to know
A one-day strike in Paris paralysed the city's public transport network. Photo: AFP
Unlimited strike action will be hitting France in December in an increasingly bitter confrontation over reforms to the French pension system - but what will the impact really be?

The strike action was originally called for December 5th by workers on the Paris public transport system (RATP), but more and more unions across France are now planning unlimited action, 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, as well as rubbish collectors.

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.

And 'yellow vests?

Yes despite being vehemently anti-union when the movement began, now some 'yellow vest' protesters have also indicated that they will get involved and declare a day of general protest on December 5th.

This could mean that motorway toll booths – a favourite 'yellow vest' haunt since the start of the movement – are targeted, while in Paris police are so fearful that of violence from 'yellow vest' or Black Bloc activists that they have ordered the closure of shops, bars and restaurants in parts of central Paris on Thursday while marches are going on.

What will be affected?

Disruption will be major – the worst to hit France since 1995.

SNCF has cancelled 90 percent of its services on December 5th. Click here for more details.

Both SNCF and Eurostar have also suspended bookings between December 5th and 9th.

In Paris all public transport services – Metro, bus, RER and tram – will be badly hit. Click here for more information. Services to and from the city's main airports will be running in rush hours only.

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.

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.

Around 20 percent of flights have been cancelled due to striking ground crew, click here for more information.

Many parents will be forced to stay home on strike days anyway as teachers and teaching assistants strike and letters will be delayed as postal workers 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.

There will also be the police-ordered closure of shops, bars and restaurants in central Paris to contend with on December 5th.

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.

READ MORE: 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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