President Hollande is taking on French strikers – and he's winning

A few days ago, 70 per cent of French people said they opposed changes in labour law and supported the protests. A poll on Sunday found that 54 per cent of French adults wanted the strikes to end

John Lichfield
in Paris
Monday 06 June 2016 15:00
comments
A man holds a bouquet of flowers and a torch as he faces riot police during a demonstration against the French government's planned labour reform on 26 May 2016 in Lyon, France
A man holds a bouquet of flowers and a torch as he faces riot police during a demonstration against the French government's planned labour reform on 26 May 2016 in Lyon, France

Floods come and go. French strikes, it seems, are forever.

Northern France is clearing up after its worst floods in three decades. President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls are finding it harder to mop up the opposition to reform French employment law.

Only a few days before the Euro 2016 football championship is supposed to showcase a forward-looking France, the country enters its third week of industrial action. There will be strikes this week on the railways, on the Paris Metro, by power-station workers, by Paris refuse collectors, at most refineries and at fuel-handling ports. Air France pilots are threatening to strike for four days next weekend.

Plus ça change?

France floods: 20,000 forced from their homes

Actually, some surprising things are happening. First, Hollande and Valls are standing firm; second, they are winning.

It is true that they are winning by making expensive concessions in other areas. It is also true that victory on labour law reform will not help President Hollande to win re-election next spring. It will probably seal his fate.

All the same, for a centre-left French government to face down the massed ranks of the hard left is an unusual and symbolically important event.

The employment law reform is a modest shift towards a France where hiring and firing is easier and local union-management productivity deals are encouraged. It also contains new rights for workers, such as the right to be disconnected from work calls and emails at the weekend.

It is neither a complete cure for France’s economic ills nor a surrender to wicked, Anglo-saxon, ultra-liberal capitalism. The moderate, reform-minded section of the much-splintered French trade unions movement supports the changes.

The hard line section of the French union movement and the traditional and hard left have decided to make the employment law a battleground against what they see as the reformist, social-democratic, pro-market treachery of a Socialist president and a Socialist prime minister. Some of the strikes – notably the rail and pilots’ strikes – are partially or wholly about separate demands or grievance in those industries.

All the signs are in Hollande’s favour. The Rejection Front, led by the hard line union federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) is slipping behind.

A few days ago 70 per cent of French people said that they opposed the changes in labour law and supported the protests. A poll on Sunday found that 54 per cent of French adults wanted the strikes and blockages to end.

Inside Story - France's paralysing strikes

Nuit Debout, the “citizens movement” against the law (which is in fact a self-conducted round-up of usual suspects of the hard left) has all but collapsed. The widespread petrol and diesel shortages of two weeks ago, mostly caused by panic-buying by motorists, have disappeared.

The power workers, Metro and rubbish collection strikes have had little impact so far. Only one in 10 rail workers obeyed the strike call on the state railways, SNCF, at the weekend, compared to nearly one in five when the strike began last Wednesday.

The rail strikers are, however, concentrated in key trades such as driving and signalling. One in 10 strikers has been enough to stop something like one in two trains. The Hollande-Valls Government has already forced SNCF to make expensive concessions on the special terms and conditions enjoyed by rail workers. Talks are underway to try to end the dispute.

But even if the strikes continue embarrassingly into the Euro 2016 tournament, an overall victory for Holland and Valls now seems assured. But for Hollande, already desperately unpopular, the victory will be pyrrhic. He will get no credit from his critics on the right and centre. Much of a shattered French left will enter next year’s election determined to punish Hollande as much as defeat the right.

The President’s bitter-sweet reward will come in enforced retirement. Like former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in Germany, he will come to be seen as the man who made modest but electorally suicidal reforms which, ultimately, served his country well.

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