BY IRENE EZRAN
Last week, another major clash emerged between the reform-minded President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and the French labor unions. This clash is only the beginning of what will be 36 days of railway worker strikes over the course of the next three months. The labor unions are organizing the strikes in protest of Macron’s reforms of the state-owned railway company, the French National Railway Corporation (SNCF). Despite the chaos this will cause for commuters, much of the French populace is determined to stand with the railway workers. If Macron is to be successful in executing his economic plans, he will need to confront the long-standing tradition of French workers of mobilizing in protest of reform.
A former investment banker, President Emmanuel Macron ran his campaign on the promise to modernize France’s economy. In February of this year, Macron’s government proposed several changes to the SNCF with the goal of reducing the company’s 46 billion euro ($57 billion) debt, which is expected to exceed 62 billion euros ($76 billion) by 2026.
The reforms will remove some privileges given to new railway workers and other SNCF employees. In France, railway workers are guaranteed lifelong employment, an early retirement, and free access to transportation for themselves and for family members. Under the reforms, newly-hired SNCF employees will no longer be entitled to this special employment status. According to the French financial newspaper La Tribune, 69 percent of the French public is in favor of removing these employment benefits for new hires. Yet, others think that these privileges are well-deserved given the long work hours and often difficult working conditions for SNCF employees. Additionally, trade unions claim that the benefits given to railway workers are not the cause of the SNCF’s financial problems, and thus removing them will not resolve the debt issue.
In 2013, the European Union (EU) changed its railway regulations, forcing its member states to tender competition for public service contracts for passenger transit lines by 2022. To adhere to this, Macron’s government plans to transform the SNCF from a public company to a “publicly financed” corporation, which would raise capital from investors while maintaining strict government regulation. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe argues that creating competition in the French railway sector will lead to a better service. However, other EU countries that have undergone similar reforms have experienced mixed results: Germany and the U.K. have seen an increase in prices, and Italy and Sweden have seen lower prices but a degradation in regional railway lines that are less frequently used.
Throughout Macron’s presidency, labor unions have felt ignored by Macron’s business-like approach to economic reform. Macron has passed this reform (among others) by ordonnance, which is a way of quickly implementing a law by bypassing parliamentary debate. The labor unions and much of the French public see this as highly undemocratic. By initiating a three-month long strike, the rail unions seek to gain leverage in negotiating the proposed changes in the SNCF with Macron’s government. Roger Dillenseger, the General Secretary of the UNSA-Railways union explained that “it’s not our aim to frustrate rail passengers. Our goal is to find a way out of this row, to sit down and negotiate and find real solutions.”
Many strikers oppose the opening up of the SNCF to competition, as they fear this competition will inevitably lead to privatization of the national railway company. The strikers reason that privatization would lead corporations to reap the profits of frequently used railway lines, while obliging the government to take on the financial responsibility of maintaining less-profitable regional lines that connect France. Despite Prime Minister Philippe’s assurance that the SNCF will remain in public hands, the strikers believe that allowing competition will put the SNCF in an irreversible path towards prioritizing corporate profits to the detriment of French society.
The strikers also want the government to buy the SNCF’s massive debt, which was in part caused by the building of railway lines in the 1990s. If the government takes on the SNCF’s debt, France would reach a debt level of almost 100 percent of its GDP. This would force France to renege on its promise to the EU to reduce its public deficit. For this reason, Prime Minister Philippe insists that “the state won’t consider taking over SNCF’s debt until the changes are made.”
Despite the significant chaos these railway strikes will cause for commuters throughout the next three months, much of the French public is willing to surmount these inconveniences for the greater good of protecting public employees. According to Reuters, 44 percent of the people support the current strikes. In an interview in the The Local, a commuter explained that the disruptions are “part of living in a society where you have the right to protect yourself.”
Yet, Gabriel Attal, a member of Macron’s party (La Republique en Marche!) in the National Assembly, was widely criticized by the French public when he stated that he wanted to rid France of its “strike culture.” Attal struck at the heart of France’s political divide over the commonality of strikes against government reform. While controversial, Attal’s comment is not wrong. According to Statista, a statistics and market research portal, France currently has the largest number of work days lost to strikes in the world (123 out of 1,000 working days, compared with 6 lost days in the United States). This leads many to ask, why does France have such a strong tendency to protest change?
Many argue that because French workers lack collective bargaining, they must take to the streets to improve their working conditions. In Austria, for example, 98 percent of workers are covered by collective bargaining contracts, and strikes are virtually nonexistent. Since workers are better able to negotiate with their employers, they do not need to strike to obtain favorable working conditions.
In addition, strikes in most European countries tend to happen after government negotiations fail; but in France, strikes often precede negotiations. Guy Groux, an expert in French labor conflicts at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris, explains that “French unions must stage radical action as a prerequisite for obtaining good faith negotiations that big unions in the U.K. and Germany are granted out of hand.” By mobilizing the French populace, labor unions flex their political muscle and attract media coverage to gain leverage in negotiations with the government.
Most importantly, France has a long-standing history of mobilizing against the state. From the French Revolution, to the Paris Commune, to the Matignon Agreements, to the massive general strike in May of 1968, the French are quick to mobilize when they feel that they are not being heard by their government. Thus, while countries such as the U.K. tend to frown upon strikes, considering them disruptive, the French public as a whole approves of strikes, characterizing them as a necessary evil to protect workers’ rights for the greater good of society.
Yet, to many people’s surprise, France has the highest number of labor unions but the lowest percentage of union membership in Europe. In fact, the number of workers in unions in France has decreased from almost 30 percent in the 1970s to 11 percent today, compared with an average membership of 25 percent in the rest of Europe. The decrease in union membership can be partly attributed to structural changes that advanced economies around the world have faced: the shift from the manufacturing industry to the service industry and the rise of globalization, both of which tend to decrease the amount of unionized workers. Nonetheless, there are several different unions (such as the General Confederation of Labour and the Workers’ Force) that continue to hold substantial political and economic clout in France, and they often mobilize workers to protest changes in labor rights.
However, in recent years, labor unions in France have failed to halt major changes enacted by the government. For example, in 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy reformed the country’s pension system and increased the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. Despite the staunch opposition from labor unions, the reform successfully passed. More recently, Macron modified France’s rigid 3,324-page-long labor code to facilitate the hiring and firing of employees and to allow firms to negotiate wages. This was part of Macron’s plan to decrease France’s nine percent unemployment rate, double that of large economies in Europe. Yet the outbreak of protests failed to stop Macron’s change in labor laws.
Despite recent setbacks in halting reform, the insurrectional tradition continues to be ever present in French society, posing a great challenge to Macron as he aims to solidify his image as a fierce modernizer of the French economy. The outcome of the three-month long SNCF strikes and the ability of Macron’s government to withstand social unrest will be an important marker in his presidency and the future of France’s economic reforms.