Unhappiness is the truth
A rerun of Francehs bad old days tests the Socialist government's resolve
The long march to work
IT WAS a deliciously French moment of exasperation. On June 16th a railway strike prompted public rage when it threatened to disrupt a national philosophy exam. On the sixth day of a rolling strike, unions at the SNCF national railway encroached on the first day of the baccalauréat school-leaving exam, a ritual that begins with a four-hour philosophy essay. As strikers downed tools and commuters battled to work, some 340,000 French teenagers were wrestling with the question “Do we live in order to be happy?”
If Fran?ois Hollande had been sitting the exam, he would surely have answered: “Fat chance as long as there are rail unions around.” A strike originally expected to be short-lived was extended on June 18th into its ninth day, the worst industrial action since he became president in 2012. On some days, more than half of TGV fast trains have been cancelled, as well as two-thirds of certain commuter trains in the Paris region. The SNCF management called it the worst strike for 13 years.
The two unions behind it, the CGT, which is close to the Communist Party, and the even harder-talking SUD, are protesting against plans to merge two rail companies: the SNCF, which runs the trains, and RFF, the highly indebted firm that manages the tracks. After months of discussion, this reform went before parliament on June 17th. Nothing in the bill changes the special status of railway workers. But the unions suspect it will lead to changes in working practices and perks once the railways are opened up to competition in 2019.
This conflict is the first big union-led test for Mr Hollande. Until now, the largest protest he has faced was over the legalisation of gay marriage. In fine tradition, he has booted the problem to his new prime minister, Manuel Valls, who has sounded tough, declaring that there is “no question” of shelving the reform. They are betting partly on union divisions to undermine the strike: Laurent Berger, leader of the CFDT, a big union which backs the reform, has accused those on strike of “contempt” for bac candidates. Mr Valls also has public opinion on his side. An overwhelming 76% say they oppose the strike. With the economy at a standstill and unemployment high, there is little sympathy for public-sector rail workers. The French are well aware that they get perks such as free tickets and that most train drivers retire at 50.
Yet the reason this strike has hardened goes beyond railway reform. Paradoxically, it partly reflects union weakness. Grass-roots members are frustrated that industrial action has lost much of its punch. The sort of paralysing strikes once common in France have become rare. By law, public services must run a minimum service during strikes, and days of industrial action are no longer paid. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of days lost to strikes per 1,000 employees fell from 164 to 77. On the SNCF works council, support for the CGT has dropped from 44% ten years ago to 36% today. Thierry Lepaon, the CGT leader, faces intense pressure not to give up the fight.
The conflict also seems to have crystallised broader discontent with the government. Some strikers talk of anger over its new business-friendly policies and austerity plans. So do part-time theatre workers, who are protesting against benefit changes. Mr Valls can ill afford to let the chaos continue. But, billed as a bold reformer, neither can he be seen to give in to his first protest on the streets.