‘La greve’ (strike), was one of the first words I learned in the French language. But is the French love of striking just another national stereotype? “Evidence suggests the French actually occupy the middle of the pack when it comes to days lost due to strikes. So why the misconception? Because when the French strike, historian Stéphane Sirot says, they do it loudly and visibly.” Indeed, I still remember the sight of my first French ‘greve’ from our apartment balcony in Grenoble many years ago. There was an enormous group of demonstators winding down the avenue holding banners and shouting ‘Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, oi oi’ (Everyone together). I can’t actually remember what that strike was about, but it was loud and visible.
When I typed ‘French train strikes’ into my internet search engine it came up with ‘train strikes 2014’ ‘train strikes 2015′ train strikes 2016’ and the latest ‘train strikes 2018’. I selected 2018: The SNCF workers (Societe Nationale de Chemin de Fer – ‘National Railway Company’) are angry. Why? Well, among the strikers’ main concerns is the plan to end the special employment status of SNCF rail workers, known as cheminots, that allows them a job for life, automatic pay rises and early retirement. (Incidentally, I heard an interview on the radio this week which discussed making the very same changes …which was recorded 39 years ago! Change is difficult.).
But there are also many doubts regarding the move towards opening up the market to competition which is due to begin in 2020 and which follows a decision taken back in 2016 at a European level. Given that the SNCF debt was estimated at being 46,6 billion euros at the end of 2017, the idea of opening up the national monopoly to competition is no doubt an attractive idea to the government.
In an attempt to appease the angry train drivers, the current government (in power since May 2017) has assured that: only new cheminot recruits will be affected by the changes to employment status, that privitization will only by partial, and that they will pay off the current SNCF debt. But NO, NO and NO! is still the response. As is often the case here, ‘protest first and (perhaps) negociate later’: Train strikes are scheduled for two days out of every five right through to 28 June.
The French general public usually accept strikes as a necessary evil to improve workers’ rights, but for the moment the majority of folk might not actually be in favor of this one.
Ps. In addition to SNCF, some universities and the airline company Air France are also striking. As France is nearing the 50th birthday of the May 1968 major strikes this wave of striking might very well be a means of ‘celebrating’ the anniversary in an ‘appropriate’ manner.
Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, oi,
ps. There is even a website dedicated to keeping French citizens up-to-date regarding strikes: c’estlagreve.fr