France strikes: Will they continue? Will they work? What experts say

Protest organisers are calling for renewed action as workers from several sectors take action today against pension reform. Experts have given their views on whether the action will last

CGT union members march with flags as part of a social movement
Unions across the country and industries are united against pension reform today, but experts suggest that the movement may not last long
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Hundreds of thousands of workers are striking across France today (January 19) but the big question now is how much support the strikes will gain in the general population and whether it will be a flash in the pan or is just the start.

Sectors involved today include both private and public workers with transport, energy and education showing particular support.

The protests are against proposed pension reform and follow last week’s government proposals for reform which include increasing the minimum pension age from 62 to 64.

Read more: Age, new minimum amount: What does France’s pension reform involve?

So far, strikes have only been confirmed for today but there are calls for continued action.

Read more: Thursday’s French pension strike to impact flights, TGVs, Eurostar

If so, the movement could become similar to the strikes in 2019-2020, when workers from companies including transport firms RATP and SNCF took action for almost two months, and those companies specifically broke their previous records for the longest social conflict.

Will the strikes last a long time?

Some strike organisers are threatening to strike for a long time. Laurent Djebali, general secretary for the FO-RATP, told LCI: “We are going to build a major movement. 2019 will be relived in 2023. We are going to blockade the Métros, RER…”

At SNCF, workers from the unions CGT, Unsa, SUD, and CFDT, have said they are "ready to launch the necessary battle”.

In a press release, they called for "a powerful strike" on the rail network on January 19 but suggested that the movement could continue.

Interviewed by BFMTV, Matthieu Bolle-Reddat of the CGT Cheminots rail union, said today’s strikes should ‘set the tone’ for what was to follow and that there should be widespread discussions among the unions afterwards to decide what should be done next.

"In 2019-2020, I did 53 days of strikes to defend the 43 pension regimes of the 23 million employees in the public and private sectors. We won. I am ready to do 50 to 60 days of strikes again to overthrow this unfair reform."

However, no transport unions have (yet) called for further action.

In contrast, unions at fuel refineries have called for strikes to last until January 26, with 48 hours from January 26, and 72 hours from February 6.

Some logistics unions, including for drivers of ambulances and good vehicles, have called for an “unlimited movement” from today, for a “massive and long-standing response”.

Benoît Teste of the FSU, France's leading education union federation, told the JDD: "For the moment, we are not calling for a continuation of the strike after January 19, but we will carefully analyse what happens on the ground. If 90% of the workers are on strike, we will obviously continue the movement. We also plan to follow up quickly after January 19.

"We need to step up the pressure to show that opposition to this reform project is growing stronger by the day and to make the government's situation untenable.

“The government is already having difficulty justifying this reform. We need to amplify this so that the government's situation becomes untenable. Our objective is to win.”

Dominique Corona, deputy general secretary of UNSA, told the JDD that “tough” action could be expected “unless the government listens to workers’ anger”.

He added: “From January 19, there will not be a single day without a movement across the country with strikes, protests, petitions and meetings with MPs from cross-union reps.

Read also: Website lists all strikes taking place in France

‘Inflation will play a part as losing pay for strikes will be tougher’

Sociologist Jean Viard said the French tend to be especially upset by retirement age rises, perhaps because they often think of the workplace as “a place of suffering”. The average French person will say they think they would no longer be fit for work from age 60, whereas in many countries it is almost 70, he said.

This often negative view of work could mean there will be support even from people who will be unaffected by the reforms - which, he said, included most people who did university studies - or even stand to benefit, such as workers on small pensions whose minimum pension amount is set to rise to €1,200 if they have paid in over a full career.

However, he doubted there would be many full days of action.

He told FranceInfo: “I can say simply that there will not be a huge amount of strike days, because of inflation and the problem of making your money last until the end of the month and the fact that strikers will lose one, two or three days of salary.”

He added: “If I had to make a prediction, I would say that there will be a strong movement on January 19, probably several big days, but alongside this, there will be smaller blockades, in refineries or on the trains.”

Read also:Most strikes in France are on a Tuesday or a Thursday. Here’s why

Dr Viard added that did not think the protests could be compared to the gilets jaunes movement that started in 2018, as he said that had appealed to certain sectors of society in particular, who were not necessarily the same as those likely to support the strikes.

Will the strike work?

Social movement expert, Professor Michel Pigenet, Professor Emeritus in contemporary history at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, says “unions are in difficulty” because they do not have as many militant members as in the past, however the fact that so many are unified on this issue today “changes the game right now”.

Today’s strike is the first time that all the relevant unions (notably the CFDT and CGT) have been united by a single cause for several years.

He said in recent decades strikes have tended to be uncommon in the private sector, where there are stronger legal protections and more unionisation, which had partly explained the popularity of “sometimes impressive” protest marches alongside actual strikes.

Marches, however large, have not tended to cause governments to back down in recent history, he said, so striking is “reappearing once again as an effective weapon”, including in the private sector. The strikes by oil refinery workers were an example, he said.

Speaking to FranceInfo he said: “Protest marches alone seem to have reached the limit of their effectiveness. But striking could become as persuasive as in previous decades: linked to the importance of work and workers. When people go on strike, you can really feel it, and it has a cost for the employer.”

The professor added that strikes and social movements tend to succeed more when they have the weight of public opinion on their side. Unions must find a balance between striking and causing so much disruption that the public turn against them, he said.

He thought they had learned that lesson since the past when strikers at EDF in the 1980s made a lot of use of power cuts.

Commenting on whether the strike would succeed in changing President Macron’s mind on pension reform, Prof Pigenet said for a strike to succeed you need politicians who “have enough experience to know how far not to go - at what point to back down without losing face”.

However he added: “I think that in that respect, we’ve got a problem.”

He said Mr Macron may lack sufficient social awareness and grassroots experience.

“You cannot, with impunity, brutalise a society that is as intractable as France. France is not a business.

“That said, even the world of business has learned that you have to be a bit careful with your ‘human resources’.”

Read also: ‘Pension age rise in France is unnecessary and will worsen inequality’

What the polls say

An Ipsos poll has found that 61% of people in France are opposed to the pension reforms and only 39% in favour, which is a “considerable” difference, Ipsos director Stéphane Zumsteeg told FranceInfo.

He added there is “never a good moment” to increase pension ages in France, but at present, with price rises, the war in Ukraine, high inflation etc. it is especially seen as especially unwelcome.

In principle therefore, “all the ingredients” are there for an “explosion” but whether that leads to widespread ongoing protests, especially in the private sector, remains to be seen, he said.

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