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France set for Christmas chaos with no end to strikes in sight

Public support remains strong despite massive travel disruption amid most severe worker action in decades

Anthony Cuthbertson
in Paris
Saturday 21 December 2019 21:40 GMT
A protester dressed as Santa in a Paris bus shelter with graffiti that reads 'Not yet Christmas and already stuffed' on 17 December
A protester dressed as Santa in a Paris bus shelter with graffiti that reads 'Not yet Christmas and already stuffed' on 17 December (Getty Images)

Workers sabotaged power networks, lorry drivers blocked motorways, trains stopped running, schools shut down and even the Eiffel Tower was off-limits to visitors, as nationwide action against proposed pension reforms entered its third week in France.

Discussions between unions and the government failed to break the deadlock, meaning the most severe strikes in decades are set to carry on across the country until at least January.

Despite the disturbances, and the prospect of Christmas travel chaos, public support for the strikes remains unwavering. The most recent poll showed 62 per cent of people support the strikes – up three points from a similar poll last week.

“The majority of French people support the action because they are not fooled,” Danielle Simonnet, an elected member of the Paris city council, told The Independent. “They know that with these reforms we will all lose.”

Simonnet joined mass protests this week, which saw more than half a million people join street demonstrations throughout France calling on President Emmanuel Macron to drop plans to introduce a universal pension scheme. The reforms were one of Macron’s flagship election promises, which he claims are necessary to revitalise France’s economy.

Despite the disruption public support for the strikes remains high (The Independent)

Protestors say the reforms are a betrayal of workers’ rights within one of the world’s most socially progressive systems. For most, they will mean working longer for less money, with a new “pivot age” of 64 forcing people to work an extra two years to receive a full pension.

Attempts to frame the narrative against the industrial action backfired over the weekend, after one reporter’s attempts to sow discontent among commuters caused the hashtag “Proud of the strike” to trend across social media.

It happened after a TV journalist from BFM TV suggested that travellers were fed up with the strikes after national rail firm SNCF announced train cancellations for 23 and 24 December. A passerby at the Gare de Lyon station in Paris interrupted the report to say they were “embarrassed by the tone”.

The commuter continued: “This is a very difficult period… but the real problem is not the people on strike. We have to look elsewhere.”

It is a sentiment shared by critics of Macron, who say his neoliberal agenda favours businesses, and those already well-off, over ordinary workers. Macron, a former investment banker, has faced similar accusations since long before these strikes began through the Yellow Vest protests, which have now entered their 58th consecutive weekend of unrest.

“Many other frustrations are added to the anger against pensions: the government has never really responded to the yellow vests; public hospitals are fighting to survive; teachers feel abandoned; students live in poverty; there is police violence; marches for the climate are ignored,” Simonnet said.

“There is a deep desire for change that runs through all of society, which these protests represent.”

Paris has felt the worst of the disruptions. Protestors clashed with police on Tuesday, trading tear gas for petrol bombs. Half of the 16 metro lines in the capital were not running at all for most of the week, with a further six experiencing severe disruption. The only two lines running normally were the line 1 and line 14 – both of which operate without human drivers.

At over-crowded bus stops this weekend, people spilled off pavements and onto the street, with any buses that were running often too full to pick up more passengers.

One way to get across the city was on the free-floating bicycles and e-scooters, but even these have proved problematic. Unions were angered by public transport operator RATP’s decision ahead of the strikes to team up with the e-scooter companies to offer discounts for commuters.

Union leaders described the move as a “provocation” designed to undermine the action. Since the strikes began, thousands of electric scooters in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux have been vandalised by protestors.

Lime, the largest e-scooter operator in Paris, did not give exact figures for how many of its machines have been damaged in recent weeks. A spokesperson for the firm also did not comment on the strikes, simply telling The Independent: “Vandalising our electric scooters disrupts the thousands of Parisians who use them to travel around the city at this busy time of year.”

Electric scooters offer an alternative form of transport to the Paris Metro, however protestors have sabotaged thousands by severing brakes and covering up the unlock code (The Independent)

Another day of mass protests are planned for 9 January – more than a month after the strikes began. Negotiations between the government and unions will also resume in January, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe hoping to pass legislation by the summer.

But his most recent plea for public transport companies to resume services over the holidays was ignored. Unions said there would be no “Christmas truce”, with CFDT union leader Laurent Berger responding: “The prime minister hasn’t heard what the street is saying.”

The last time such drastic public sector reforms were proposed was in 1995, when three weeks of nationwide strikes resulted in the government eventually capitulating. While they continue to have the public’s backing, it seems unlikely the latest strikes will end until workers’ demands are met.

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