France has its hands full with strikes, floods, and security threats as it prepares to begin hosting the Eurocup 2016 on Friday. The opportunistic strikes are particularly galling, as they are of railway workers and pilots, which would cause major travel disruptions.
President François Hollande said on Sunday that it would be incomprehensible for labor disputes to disrupt the month-long soccer tournament, but the unions are holding most of the leverage now.
That said, the strikes are weakening. For example, the number of striking railway employees was down to just 8.5% on Monday, while the number of trains running as scheduled is at two thirds and rising. Just as importantly, public support (which was so crucial in previous strikes against government labor laws) has turned against the strikes. A BVA poll published over the weekend showed that 54% of French people interviewed were against the protests and only 45% supported them.
The government has made significant concessions on industry-specific grievances, but it refuses to budge on its flagship labor bill. Aimed at liberalizing France’s rigid labor law and bringing unemployment down from its stubborn 10% level, the bill would make hiring and firing easier. It would also let unions make in-house deals that trump agreements struck at the level of the professional branch.
The current strikes or threats are perhaps the last gasp of national unions’ dominating power in French politics. Indeed, Philippe Martinez, president of the hardline CGT (France’s largest union), no longer talks about totally withdrawing the labor bill but rather calls for a dialogue with P.M. Manuel Valls about it. (If the bill passes, the CGT would struggle to mobilize sector-wide or national movements that have always been its hallmark, and more localized reformist unions would see their influence rise instead.)
Public support for the labor bill is lukewarm. According to the same BVA poll, 29% of respondents want the government to maintain the labor bill, 29% want it withdrawn, and 41% desire a negotiated solution. But with a presidential election a year away, Paris is calling the unions’ bluff. “I will change nothing in the labor bill,” Valls told reporters last Wednesday.
The head of France’s state-run railways, Guillaume Pepy, said on Tuesday that he expects a deal to end the strike will be reached on Wednesday or Thursday.
However, there are always extreme holdouts, and it doesn’t take many striking workers in key positions to inconvenience everyone. Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of a smaller labor union Force Ouvriere, remained defiant in continuing the industrial action. “We’re not stupid. Nobody’s saying ‘we’re going to block the Euros’ … but when your back is against the wall, there’s little alternative but to continue,” he said.
Additionally, pilots at Air France have given notice of plans to strike for several days starting on Saturday over management plans to curb their salaries. To avoid ruining the tournament, expect sector-specific concessions to be made and strikes averted at the last minute. But the labor bill will likely push through unscathed.