When French trade unionists strike, the public pays attention. Industrial actions in Paris are traditionally accompanied by manifs, or demonstrations—theatrical, festive events that often involve beating drums, flares, and barbecued meat. Tales of stranded commuters and packed train stations fill the airwaves, and the world’s media turns its gaze, fleetingly, to the French streets.
But few foreign observers are still watching by the time a strike fizzles out. On April 3, the unions at the French national railway, the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF), initiated a series of strikes, and the public lost interest even more quickly than usual. What is most newsworthy about these strikes, however, is not why they began, but why they ended. French President Emmanuel Macron has refused to bend to long-standing taboos in French culture against defying the SNCF’s unions, as indicated by his insistence on reforming the railways. Unions will remain a powerful force in French politics for a long time to come, but Macron’s recent win against the railway workers suggests that the days of their unchecked power to block reforms may be drawing to a close.
The railway workers’ strikes this spring were billed as Macron’s “Thatcher moment” because they tested his reformist resolve and willingness to face down union leaders. (Margaret Thatcher was famous for weakening the power of trade unions during her tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom in the 1980s.) The railway unions chose a pattern designed to cause maximum confusion: strikes would last for two days out of every five, on a rolling basis, including weekends. Their grievance was a draft piece of legislation introduced by Macron’s government in March 2018, which they regard as part of a secret plan to privatize French railways and phase out underused train services in remote areas. The government argued, on the contrary, that the reform was intended to prepare the SNCF for changes set to take place in 2020, when the continent’
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