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STRIKES

Are French pension strikes over?

Periodic strikes have been causing disruption in France since January, while anti-pension reform demos have repeatedly flared into violence in the big cities - but is the battle over pension reform finally over?

Are French pension strikes over?
A protestor holds a Force Ouvriere (FO) trade union flag as he walks in front of a banner reading "No pension, no peace" Photo by Damien MEYER / AFP

Tuesday, June 6th saw the 14th one-day mass strike in France on the issue of Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms – which among other things raise the standard pension age from 62 to 64.

But with steeply falling turnout and the end of the political and legal processes to fight the reform, could this also be the final strike day?

Strike announcements

The pattern of the pension battle so far as has been for the inter-syndicale, the federation that represents all eight French unions, to wait until one strike day is over before announcing the next.

The June 6th strike was announced after an unusually long gap – the previous day of action had been May 1st. Since January, the strike days have taken place at roughly two-week intervals, with a break around the spring school holidays.

Among the things that unions consider when calling new strikes is the turnout at previous ones.

Turnout

As is the usual pattern during prolonged strikes, turnout has fallen as the pension strikes have gone on.

French workers are not paid during strikes, so as time goes on many go back to work when they feel they can no longer take the financial hit of sacrificing a day’s pay.

Even allowing for this pattern however, the turnout in the most recent strike days has been low, with national railways and city public transport services able to run normal or quasi normal services on strike days.

Air traffic controllers have proved the most resilient of the strikers, with walk-outs causing around 20 percent of flights in and out of six French airports to be cancelled on Tuesday.

Tuesday also saw a record low turnout at marches and demos around Paris – Interior Ministry figures estimated the total turnout at 280,000, including 31,000 in Paris. 

This represents the lowest turnout since the protests began, and is well short of the 1.2 million people who took to the streets at the start of the protests. 

Public support

Another important factor is public support. Although the strikes have undoubtedly caused disruption, the public remain broadly supportive, with polling for the French Sunday paper Journal Du Dimanche indicating that 57 percent of French people still support the strikes – although this is down from 80 percent at the start of the strikes.

Political progress

In parallel with the battle on the street is the political battle – and several strikes have been called to coincide with key political actions.

However, opponents have now exhausted virtually all legal and political avenues, and the pension reform bill has been signed into law.

A last-ditch attempt to block the bill in parliament will be tabled by the centrist group Liot on Thursday – it is not expected to succeed.  

Unions

These are all the factors that unions need to weigh up when deciding whether to call more strikes.

The tone from union leaders and leftist politicians remains bullish, with hardline CGT union leader Sophie Binet calling for “everyone to take the streets” and slamming the introduction of the pension reform in September as “irresponsible”.

Meanwhile Green MP Sandrine Rousseau says that “defeat is not a foregone conclusion” and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon says that the battle against pension reform “will never stop”.

Balanced against the rhetoric, however, is the knowledge that unions will weaken their own position if they continue to call strikes that cause little or no disruption.

Previous long-running union battles – including the battle against pension reform in 2019 – ended with a splintering of the united front among unions, with the more moderate ending the strikes while the smaller, radical unions kept up the battle, but to little effect. 

Summer holidays

The summer holidays in France traditionally mark a break in mass strike actions, but they are often a time for industrial action from specific unions – especially those involved in the flight and tourist industries.

France still faces problems with inflation and the cost of living, and although Macron may have managed to get his reform passed into law, the mood in France remains testy and hostile. 

READ ALSO Will there be queues at the French border this summer? 

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France’s SNCF to offer high-speed passenger links in Italy

French national rail operator SNCF said on Wednesday it planned to offer high-speed passenger services in neighbouring Italy from 2026, competing with rival Trenitalia on its home turf.

France's SNCF to offer high-speed passenger links in Italy

“Italy is a natural market for high speed, with 56 million passengers per year,” said Alain Krakovitch, head of intercity TGV (high-speed train) services at SNCF Voyageurs.

“But it’s a market that’s yet to mature, with many passengers still to bring in.”

SNCF plans eventually to offer nine daily return services between Turin, Milan, Rome and Naples, as well as four Turin-Venice trains.

The French heavyweight moved into Spain with intercity services in 2021, and has seen Trenitalia itself look to pick up business in France on the profitable Paris-Lyon line.

SNCF hopes to claim 15 percent of the Italian high-speed market within a decade, or 10 million passengers per year.

In Spain, it has built its passenger base to 20 percent with its low-cost Ouigo service.

European business already accounts for one-third of SNCF’s annual high-speed revenues, or €3 billion.

The publicly owned firm is also responding to explosive demand for rail travel at home in France.

READ MORE: MAP: Where high-speed trains can take you in France

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