Why are the French on strike … again?

Published 10:11 AM EDT, Thu June 2, 2016
01:58 - Source: CNN
French police clash with striking workers

Story highlights

Just a third of France's rail services are running Thursday

Pilots say they will go on strike next week

(CNN) —  

Much of France may soon come to a halt as more workers from different industries join nationwide strikes over labor reforms, threatening to turn the Euro 2016 soccer championships into a logistical nightmare when they start next week.

The French government has been scrambling to keep gas stations from running dry and cities powered after workers at oil refineries and nuclear plants walked off the job weeks ago, but its worries grew worse Wednesday as transportation workers joined the strike, hitting the country’s rail and metro networks.

Just a third of rail services are running Thursday, and some air traffic controllers went on strike this week, grounding at least 10,000 British airline passengers. Some have agreed to return to work over the weekend, while pilots have said they will go on strike next week.

France’s gas stations running dry

In the industrial port town of Le Havre, workers who usually drive trains, sell tickets and maintain stations stormed the tracks Thursday to protest, only to be met by a storm of tear gas from riot police. Meanwhile, floods threaten to heighten the chaos in the country’s east, which, like neighboring Germany, has been inundated by deadly storms.

Le Havre is home to one of Europe’s biggest ports, and it too has come to a halt, with dock workers saying they will go on strike Friday.

What’s all the fuss about?

The government is trying to roll back the country’s labor laws, which offer some of the world’s best protections to workers. Such strikes are going on largely due to the power of unions and workers’ actions.

What is the point of the labor reform bill?

The government argues that union protections make it too difficult for companies to fire workers, which discourages taking risks and hiring new staff. France’s youth have been particularly hit hard, the government says.

Despite a relatively prosperous economy, France has an unemployment rate of more than 10%, around double most of its European counterparts.

What’s in the bill?

A man faces riot police during a labor protest last month in Lyons.
A man faces riot police during a labor protest last month in Lyons.

The bill proposes a change in the number of hours that staff can be expected to work each week. It makes it easier to hire and fire people, allows companies to offer lower wages than they currently have to and relaxes rules on special leave, such as parental leave.

What would happen to the workweek?

Many French workers treasure the 35-hour workweek. Those who work more than 35 hours a week are supposed to be compensated for overtime. The 35-hour rule was originally put in place in 2000 to encourage companies to do more hiring by limiting work hours.

Now the government wants to allow companies to ask staff to work up to 46 hours a week, or 60 in exceptional circumstances. Employers must give staff the extra time back, so that workers still average 35 hours a week over a three-month period.

The current law also says that workers must have 11 consecutive hours between shifts, but the government is proposing that this period could be broken up.

What do unions think?

They are fiercely opposed to the bill, including changes to weekly work hours. They oppose the proposal that allows companies experiencing “economic difficulty” for a certain period of time to strike individual deals with employees, which they say mean lower wages and different approaches to overtime. If a company is losing money, it would be able to negotiate individually with workers to pay them less. If the workers refuse, the firm then would be able to let employees vote on the matter, and only 30% would need to agree to lower pay for the employer to enforce it.

The unions say the term “economic difficulty” is too broad and would allow layoffs to occur with little scrutiny.

Current law makes it illegal for a company to lay off a worker if it is profitable to do so. But the government is proposing that a company can fire an employee if its revenues have fallen for one month for a small business, three successive quarters for medium-size businesses and a year for larger companies.

The unions also say the reforms would not help youth, who would likely face lower wages while education and housing costs continue to rise.

What do the French people think?

Union members stand next to tires set ablaze near an oil refinery this week in Donges.
Union members stand next to tires set ablaze near an oil refinery this week in Donges.

Several polls show the majority of French people oppose the bill. One survey by French polling company Ifop found that 46% want the bill revoked entirely, while 40% want it modified to be more worker friendly. Eleven percent showed full support of the bill. Many appear irked by the government’s invocation of a rarely used constitutional clause that allowed it to force the bill through parliament without the usual deliberations, according to media reports and social media postings.

What do the strikes mean for Europe 2016?

That depends on how the next week pans out. The soccer championships open June 10, and neither the unions nor the government are showing any sign of dropping their demands. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that parts of the labor reform bill may be modified but ruled out dropping it altogether. The government is trying to negotiate with individual industries to ensure smooth sailing for the soccer event, which is expected to attract 2.5 million people, but it’s a big task with gas stations, power plants, trains, the metro and flights likely to be affected.

Do the French really have it easy?

Yes and no. The French have the shortest legal workweek in Europe, but it doesn’t mean they work less than everyone else. In Britain, staff can be asked to work up to 48 hours a week, a limit mandated by the European Union. But in reality, the French people work an average 36.1 hours a week, not much less than those in Britain, who work 36.5, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2014, the most recent year available.

Per capita, France is one of the most productive countries in the world, but its high unemployment rate comes at a cost to the economy, the government argues, while unions say protections make workers happier and more productive.

And what about these floods?

The floods are another headache for the French government. At least five people died Wednesday in flooding across France and Germany, officials said. The Seine in Paris is overflowing, and authorities are warning residents and visitors to be vigilant around riverbanks, saying levels are expected to peak Friday.

CNN’s Erin McLaughlin reported from Le Havre, and journalist Angela Dewan wrote from London.