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. 

Tradition Derailed

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’s domestic passenger railways will be opened up to competition as per an EU agreement made in 2016. Macron’s recent legislation—which Parliament passed in June—turns the railway body into a publicly held company (société anonyme), relieves its debt burden of 35 billion euros (41 billion dollars), and puts an end to recruitment under favorable contracts that currently enable some SNCF employees to retire as early as the age of 50.

In the three months since the strike began, participation has dropped rapidly, from 34 percent of all railway staff on the first day to just ten percent by June 28. The share of train drivers participating dropped from 77 percent to 36 percent between early April and late June. Several holdouts—including the once mighty Confédération Générale du Travail, a union that has historic ties to the French Communist Party—have continued to strike during the summer holiday season, specifically targeting busy weekend travel. The first weekend of July saw several scenes of chaos at railway stations. But the remaining unions—including the more moderate Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, which is now the biggest union in the private sector—have called an end to the strikes and accepted Macron’s new law. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the French government has demonstrated that it is possible to break a long-standing political taboo (reform of the SNCF), confront the unions, and win.

What does Macron’s success say about the impact of strikes on reform efforts in France today? Historically, French unions have not derived their power from membership. Trade union density is only eight percent in France—below that of both the United States (ten percent) and the United Kingdom (24 percent). The power of France’s union leaders rests on their ability to mobilize protesters as well as the statutory roles that they enjoy on works councils within firms and public-sector organizations and as co-managers of the country’s health and social security system.

Twelve years ago, Dominique de Villepin, a center-right prime minister who served under Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, attempted to change the labor contract for people under the age of 26 (the contrat première embauche, or first employment contract). The proposed changes were regarded as unfairly discriminatory against young people, and up to three million French people took to the streets nationwide in union-led protests. Chirac balked and repealed the legislation, even though it had already been voted into law.

Even more impressive, in the autumn of 1995, unions brought Paris and several other cities to a standstill as railway, post office, electricity, and other public-sector workers including teachers joined strikes against welfare reform introduced by Alain Juppé, another of Chirac’s prime ministers. Despite an icy snap in December of that year, some two million people joined the protests, forcing the stiff and technocratic Juppé to shelve his proposed pension reform altogether.

This year, however, the railway unions have drawn far fewer people into the streets. At most 500,000 protesters took part in the first manif against the SNCF reform in March. As the strikes dragged on, the numbers dwindled. The unions’ cause failed to capture the public’s imagination, even among a population that is remarkably tolerant of daily disruption in the name of contesting government policies.

All On Board With Reform

What has changed since railway unions brought the city to a standstill in 1995? First, today’s strikers failed to win over public opinion. In 1995, even as public services were shut down, popular support for the strikers swelled as the weeks wore on. This year, support for the government increased over time: from 51 percent of the French population on the eve of the first day of strikes to 64 percent by early June. Despite student protests and sit-ins on university campuses this spring, unions failed to bring about a convergence des luttes, whereby workers and students unite, as they did in May 1968, in a moment of worker-bourgeois solidarity. The railwaymen may hold a romantic place in the French collective imagination. But French citizens are also finding it increasingly difficult to defend what they see as the unfairly favorable working conditions enjoyed by train drivers and other railway employees. The government’s case has proven more persuasive. The French want their treasured public services—railways chief among them—to be run well.

A second difference between today’s railway strike and that of 1995 is that Macron’s agenda has more political legitimacy than Chirac’s ever did. In 1995, Chirac was elected on a campaign promise to mend the “social fracture.” But when his prime minister drew up a tough package of measures designed to cut public spending and to help France meet the convergence requirements for European monetary union, voters felt betrayed and took their discontent to the streets.

Macron, however, made no secret of his reformist agenda during his campaign for the presidency. He laid out for voters his exact plans for reforms, down to the last detail of the special “ordinances” he would eventually use to accelerate the passage of a labor reform bill through Parliament last year. Elected with 67 percent of the second-round vote in the spring of 2017, he secured a firm mandate for change. His approach to reforms avoids outright confrontation with the unions, which detracts from the value of comparisons with Thatcher, who actively sought a demonstration of force in order to assert her political authority. Throughout the drafting of the railway legislation, the French government under Prime Minister Edouard Philippe supervised meetings with union leaders to hear their grievances and make minor concessions. Yet Macron held firm against the SNCF, making it clear that there was “no chance” he would abandon the law.

Shifting Norms

Finally, the impact of industrial action in France has diminished over the past few decades because of technological changes. In the past, when the railways or post offices shut down, activity in a city would cease almost entirely. Now, start-ups such as the carpooling app BlaBlaCar offer solutions—either explicitly or inadvertently—to those rendered immobile by strikes. Other apps, including the SNCF’s own, supply live updated schedules to smartphones ahead of and during strikes, which takes the sting out of last-minute disruptions. Culture has adapted, too. Le télétravail (working from home), for example, has become a more acceptable practice. This year’s railway strikes have been inconvenient, confusing, and at times exasperating. But in a break from tradition, they have not paralyzed France.

It would be a mistake to suggest that French unions have been disarmed completely. They retain their role on works councils and in the management of publicly mandated health and welfare systems, and as such they remain players in the organization of public- and private-sector life in France. Strikes will surely continue to be carried out as unions exercise their democratic right to advocate for more favorable working conditions. Fifty years after the uprising of May 1968, protests remain firmly a part of French life. But the past three months have shown that when unions are handled with a strategic mix of respect and firmness, and when public opinion is persuaded that a new policy is good for them, governments need not capitulate to strikes. France is capable of government-led reform—even if few outside observers are around to witness it.


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  • SOPHIE PEDDER is Paris Bureau Chief of The Economist and the author of Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation.

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