French people are likely to face a number of inconveniences in the coming weeks. Unions are attempting to mobilize resistance to the next round of President Emmanuel Macron's undoing of labor protections.
French people's lives are likely to get rather unpleasant in the coming weeks: Garbage will sit on pavements because collectors are on strike, targeted actions by energy unions will mean cuts to the power supply, and — as the main focus of resistance to the next round of President Emmanuel Macron's undoing of labor protections — the national rail company, SNCF, will grind to a halt. Some days, people won't even be able to escape abroad because Air France employees plan to continue their protests, as well.
Unions had mostly licked their wounds since last autumn, when Macron and the legislature did away with many of the rights workers had come to count on. The syndicates had managed to persuade the government to make a few concessions and amend some proposed changes to labor laws, but they weren't able to stop market liberalization. In fact, Macron's government had succeeded in dividing the unions and keeping the general public's irritation to a minimum. By French standards, the mobilization of protesters was not very impressive. That is expected to be different this spring.
Not only are the unions presenting a more united front in the run-up to the protests than they had for the last round: They also have an ambitious program. SNCF, the national rail company, is the main bone of contention. Though it is €45 billion ($55 billion) in debt, government officials have expressed their ambition to make it internationally competitive. Their latest cuts to labor protections would, therefore, mean that future new SNCF employees would do without the compensation packages that their colleagues currently receive, including retirement before the statutory age of 62. The unions see this as a frontal attack and are planning industrial action starting on April 3 and set to last nearly three months. The General Confederation of Labor, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor and other unions have asked members to alternate working days and strike days — three on, two off — through June 28.
Employees in the waste disposal sector will also start their unlimited walkout in several regions of France on April 3. Here, too, retirement and pensions are the focus of the protest.
Electricity and gas sector employees also want their industrial action to go on for three months. Here, the strike is a protest against the liberalization of the sector: Labor specialists believe that removing such utilities from the domain of public service would lead to worsened conditions for workers.
Air France's employees are striking for a 6 percent across-the-board pay increase, which would be the first raise since 2011, even as the airline's profits have increased and rents and the prices of consumer goods have skyrocketed.
Macron in danger?
With the unions trying to put numerous screws to the government, it is the train strike that could be especially dangerous for President Macron and his prime minister, Edouard Philippe. Surveys indicate that a majority of people support cutting SNCF workers' compensation; however, experts warn that the French could grow restless should transit be paralyzed for longer than two weeks, increasing pressure on the government to back down.
There are plenty of historical examples. The autumn of 1995 is mentioned particularly often in the French media these days. Back then, the young prime minister, Alain Juppe, proposed the "Plan Juppe," an ambitious series of cuts to public services. He, too, had seized on the compensation negotiated for SNCF employees — at the time, the company's debt was the equivalent of 25 billion euros — but other professions, too, would have had to suffer cuts. The unions responded by bringing public life to a standstill for weeks on end. The government eventually caved in under pressure from the streets. "The moment of truth has come," said Juppe, who had previously ruled out any possibility of giving in; he became deeply unpopular and, though he continues to hold political positions, he only lasted two years in that office.
Although there are numerous parallels, there are also some crucial differences. Emmanuel Macron's 2017 election campaign — which he won in a runoff against Marine Le Pen, a deeply unpopular far-right candidate who nonetheless received a third of the vote — was based on his agenda to undo labor protections. Also, after decades of debate there are now more French people who, according to the opinion polls, are more open to arguments that the state should be remade.
Compared to the German government's Hartz cuts to social services, implemented under the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the French leadership's undoing of labor protections is an operation conducted with relative caution. With net government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product now at over 96 percent, Macron wants to scrap 120,000 of about 5.6 million public service jobs by 2022.
The starting positions before the showdown are clear, but few experts will risk a prognosis. France's political dynamics are too unpredictable.
One thing is clear: If the government caves in to pressure from the street, the big pension cuts planned for 2019 — possibly the core of Macron's first-term agenda — are likely to be off the table. That is one goal for the unions. Last autumn, the bad weather didn't help their efforts to mobilize people and get them out on the streets. They're hoping for good strike weather this spring.