France is bracing itself for a widespread transport strike starting on Thursday, December 5. This looks set to be the most comprehensive strike the country has experienced in decades, and which could last for weeks. At the heart of this debate is a controversial reform of the country’s state pension system. Union leaders have vowed to maintain their strike until French President Emmanuel Macron abandons his campaign promise for a "universal" retirement system.
What has caused the strike?
Macron’s proposed pension reform aims to simplify the complex French retirement system by merging 42 different regimes into one single regime. However, it will specifically have a significant impact on public sectors who until now have enjoyed special retirement systems to compensate for difficult working situations.
This new system will introduce a ‘points system’ for retirement. This will threaten both the age of retirement and also the financial recompension at the time of retirement. Currently, public sector worker’s pensions are at present calculated on the salary they earned for the last six months of working life – normally the highest for most people – and an assessment of the best 25 years of their career. The new system will take every year into account. This means that if you had a couple of lean years or became self-employed for a while, or even had health issues that prevented you from working for some time, you will receive a lower pension.
Transport workers especially upset
Macron’s pension plan specifically targets rail workers. And they are united in their response. They are fighting for the retention of the pension rights for ‘cheminots’. ‘Cheminot’ is the name for the special status for people who work in the French railway system. It is acquired by almost everyone in the industry, from train drivers and electricians to office workers and ticket sellers.
There are many privileges associated with this status. ‘Cheminots’ have a job for life, they cannot be fired for economic reasons. They have regular salary increases and they have a shorter working week. They also are entitled to early retirement. They can retire between 52 and 57, which is a decade before the rest of the working population.
What do the strikers want?
They want to protect this special status that the government wants to get rid of. Under Macron’s plans, current workers will retain their privilege but new employees will not have access to it. Staff are determined to fight for the next generation of train workers.
According to a poll published by La Tribune, Orange and RTL last week, 6 out of 10 people said they are behind this strike. There is the fear that this reform will just be the first in a number and that allowing it to pass will create a domino effect, destroying France’s public service in general.
Who will be affected?
Virtually all transport options are involved. The French public railway company SNCF is one of the biggest in the world and 90 percent of SNCF services have been cancelled for December 5 and potentially ongoing. RATP operates Paris transport and they say buses, metros, RER trains and trams will all be significantly affected. 20 percent of flights in and out of France will be affected.
Postal workers in 20 French departments will join the walkout too.
This strike will also potentially involve civil servants. Police unions, rubbish collectors, air-traffic controllers and Air France workers have also said they will start striking on Thursday, and the biggest union for primary school teachers expects four out of 10 schools will remain shut.
Rallies and work stoppages are planned in dozens of cities, capped by two demonstrations planned for Paris.