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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

The French cling fiercely to their strike culture

Voters in France elect politicians who promise change but want reforms that affect only others, writes Colin Randall

Railway workers vote during a union meeting at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris on the second day of a nationwide strike. Philippe Wojazer / REUTERS
Railway workers vote during a union meeting at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris on the second day of a nationwide strike. Philippe Wojazer / REUTERS

When people mention the Paris spring of 1968, marked by waves of strikes and protests involving millions of workers and students, they naturally think of the heady events of May, mirrored in rebellions around the western world.

But as we approach the 50th anniversary, it is worth recalling that the movement had origins in the weeks before May, starting with a student occupation of offices at the Paris Nanterre University from March 22.

French unions, which have since lost some power but retain a fondness for striking at the drop of a beret, were aware of the earlier history of the revolt when they began a three-month series of strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s intended reform of the state-owned SNCF rail network.

Paris – and France – are lovely in the spring. Would-be visitors, from the UAE as elsewhere, should know it will be harder than usual to get around.

By no coincidence, Air France staff are also striking, over pay. For all the unions’ crocodile tears about the impact on ordinary people, the stoppages are timed and planned to cause maximum disruption.

For good measure, there are also strikes in other sectors. Students are again muscling in, occupying and blockading universities to resist changed admission procedures.

The French cling fiercely to what one minister calls a strike culture. Some of those moaning about cancelled trains and flights, and ghastly overcrowding on the rail services that continue running, will have recent memories of staging industrial action.

The dogged pursuit of single interests is so ingrained in the national psyche that a competent scriptwriter could devise a film or play showing France at a permanent standstill, each dispute overlapping the next.

Voters in France elect politicians who promise change; they theoretically accept their country could otherwise be left behind. Paradoxically, as my French brother-in-law, among others, observes, they want reforms that affect only others.

Try as he might to reassure railway workers that the government is not set on privatising SNCF or closing local lines, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe finds his words falling on deaf ears. The strikes are presented as a defence of public services. They are also part-political and part-protectionist, in particular aimed at preserving the privileged status of the cheminot, or railway worker.

SNCF staff enjoy perks from early retirement – 52 for drivers and conductors, 55 for others – to free or reduced fares and, unless guilty of misconduct, jobs for life.

Workers say the advantages are exaggerated and point to their unsocial hours. Despite Mr Macron’s tough stance, they have history on their side. French governments habitually cave in when facing tumult on the streets and the collapse of essential services.

It is difficult to find a reasonable balance between the right to withdraw labour and the disproportionate misery that results.

Mr Philippe implicitly recognised this in parliament but had no magic solution for reconciling the competing rights of public service employees and the public.

Defending attempts to cut off whole towns, a French union leader once pointed out wearily that there was no such thing as an effective strike that did not cause disruption.

France’s love-hate relationship with industrial unrest was neatly captured by "Amelie_Picardie", an SNCF line controller with a large following on Twitter. “My sincere compassion for struggling passengers,” she wrote. “You are the ones penalised most and I’m sorry because you shouldn’t be paying for this conflict.”

But she ended by pledging support "for all workers in combat". It boils down to this – "all strikes are to be encouraged and sorry, folks, if your lives are made impossible". Not quite France’s cliched je m’en foutisme (not giving a hoot); just not giving too much of a hoot.