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French strikes go into overdrive

Following on my post about Oct. 19 planned strikes, they are well underway across the country. You can see specials in New York Times as well as here too with pictures, BBC News, Libération, and Figaro. BBC even has Q&A about the strikes. English translations of French press commentary can be read here. BBC has pictures here.

France 24 has a travel survival guide posted as well, stating that disruptions could continue for the rest of the month. I’ll be sure to keep you informed.

Paris metro and suburban rail line updates can be found on the RATP website. At the time of this posting, metro line traffic was getting back to normal, but bus lines were still disrupted. RER trains are running 2 out of 3 for the RER A, 1 out of 2 for RER B (the Charles de Gaulle Airport line).

You can see the status of your trains in Ile de France (Paris region) for RER trains on this website. You can get more info on SNCF trains here. You can find information for other metro areas transport below, mostly in French. You can see the status of departures and arrivals in the main train stations at Gares en Mouvement website.

Aéroports de Paris (which runs Orly, Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais airports) said to expect possible delays, cancellations and other inconveniences on Oct. 19 and after. Check with your airlines, as some were asked to cancel flights.

Other major cities and their transport systems below with relevant updates:
Lyon, Grenoble, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille, Nice, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Brest, Caen, La Rochelle, Le Havre, Montpellier

You should know as well that almost 3000 gas stations at supermarkets (50% of supermarkets) are almost or completely out of fuel, as fuel depots are blocked around the country by strikers. 4000 stations are being affected by a slowdown in provisions, but François Fillon says there should be a “return to normal in the next four to five days.” Sarkozy said he will respond “with force” to get the economy back going. In the meantime, here are some tips about how to find a station.

BBC posted this info from the IEA concerning the fuel shortage:

-France, like other European countries, has at least 90 days of oil reserves
-Emergency reserves are held by oil industry and last for 30 days
-Strategic reserves are controlled by the government and last for 60 days
-The reserves are divided between crude and “oil products” – petrol, diesel and heating oil
-The reserves are held at France’s 12 refineries and 100 oil depots

It seems the participation at midday is down from last week, but it is still quite significant. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon are determined to pass the reform, with Sarkozy calling it his “duty”. The reform is set to be voted on by the French Sénat tomorrow. Figaro has a fantastic, detailed chart of what the reform proposes. As you will see, fonctionnaires remain the aristocracy of France, weighing on pensions even more.

In addition to transport, some schools are closed as well as the post offices. 400 high schools are blocked on strike around the country (including the one next to my apartment), with violence breaking out at some like in Nanterre. There were some quite vulgar signs and banners that I will not detail here, but one could say that the lycéens are not happy. Youth feel like raising the retirement age will be to their detriment, not only for working longer but also for leaving older people in jobs that they feel could prevent them from getting jobs. But that is only if the economy cannot diversify and produce jobs for young graduates.

Since Socialist president François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 in 1981, the unemployment rate has averaged 9.5% from 1983 to 2010, based on many factors including especially rigid labor laws that make it costly for companies to hire (payroll taxes can reach almost 50%, so that for an employee making 2000 euros/month, the company is paying about 4000 euros). So while I understand the worries of students who want to secure a job after their studies, I certainly do not think raising the retirement age will take away their jobs. How many 20 year-olds take jobs that 60 year-olds take, anyway?

What France needs is to raise the retirement age, and 62 is a reasonable level to start with (it will go higher after), and it needs to encourage private industry, venture capital, entrepreneurship and reduce costs for companies to give them incentives to hire. There is a traditionally anti-business sentiment in France, akin to the anti-government feelings in the US. But I think in the past couple years our countries have started to bridge that gap slowly – but there remains undeniable cultural disparity.

A couple of interesting polls give insight into the situation. The first one asks “Do you think the strikes and protests are beginning to lose steam?”, and over 58% said yes, but this was conducted by the Figaro, which is center-right. The second one, still by Figaro, asks if the government should use force to gain access to fuel depots that are blocked. The result? An overwhelming 80% said yes. Indeed, Sarkozy said that he would do this, because the economy is being hit by these strikes

Figaro TV news is at the bottom of this posting to give you an inside look at the violence between youth and police. I’ll update this week as we go along. Good luck!

  1. October 19th, 2010 at 18:17 | #1

    Thanks for the Figaro chart about what the reform is going to change (or not change). Very interesting indeed!

  2. October 20th, 2010 at 15:29 | #3

    Excellent, well-documented and useful post. Thanks.

  3. Aurélie Viotto
    October 21st, 2010 at 00:01 | #5

    Thanks for this post Michael. It is fantastic to have access to such clear and objective information about what is going on in France!
    J’espère que tout va bien pour toi.
    Aurélie 🙂

  4. Cyril
    October 21st, 2010 at 08:26 | #7

    It is absolutely true that France needs to encourage private industry, venture capital, entrepreneurship and reduce costs for companies to give them incentives to hire. And it should start with that. 20% of people under 25 are unemployed. 2/3 of people reaching the retirement age are unemployed.
    Without doing anything about it, the raise of the retirement age will only mean extending the unemployment time for people close to retirement and lowering their pension level as a consequence.

    • October 21st, 2010 at 11:51 | #8

      Hi Cyril,

      Thanks for reading and your comment. I understand why many strikers are angry at Sarkozy for the way he is going about this retirement reform, but one should remember that he has negotiated many times on this, and that he has already included measures for working mothers, those in laborious jobs and other cases.

      One of the reasons that the unemployment rate is so high among youth is that many study professionally useless subjects like sociology and philosophy. I say professionally useless applying to France, because in the US you could get a job with these degrees, but it’s hard to do so in France unless you want to be a researcher or professor. It’s not just their fault however, as the French public university system does not prepare enough students for the professional world, which is one reason why many French who want to become leaders of industry go to the grandes écoles. There are exceptions of course, and it is gradually changing, for programs like licence pro, master pro (I myself did master pro which prepared me well).

      Oddly enough, despite the protests against the CPE (I believe it was in 2006), making it more flexible for companies to hire and fire employees is in the favor of those searching for jobs. More labor flexibility means higher employment rates because there is more incentive for companies and those who lose their job can more easily find another one. I think the problems in France are also linked with mentality, as those who are 50 are asked more about retirement than the next stage of their careers. There needs to be new reforms to encourage companies to hire younger people who are often dynamic, innovative and multilingual. Internships are a good step, but jobs are the goal.

      Sarkozy has talked about proposing new reforms related to youth employment, after the pension reform is settled; but looking at the government debt and budget deficit, and the longer life expectancy, as well as the ages of retirement in OECD countries (and most countries), 62 is really a moderate reform. It was 65 before Mitterrand changed it to 60 in 1981, and since 1983, unemployment has averaged 9.5%, so it’s hard to believe that age 60 is good for employment. This retirement reform is not enough to boost employment, but it will help France get better credit on its treasury bonds and better ratings on its sovereign debt and provide more finances towards pensions for workers, so those striking against this are missing the point, which is if reform is not carried out, our generation, the young, will not get a pension. That’s just a fact. And taxing profits of companies even more than the currently sky-high rates will make companies move out of France to lower tax countries. Other reforms are needed, and the retirement age will have to go up even more (65 has been hinted by government officials) but for now I think this is a good start. The “special regimes” of fonctionnaires are also ridiculous and need to be reformed, but that will take time.

      The unions and others can continue striking, but if they undermine the economy as they are doing right now, it is not in their interest and they will increasingly be viewed as terrorists taking the country hostage for their own interests. The government will win on this reform, as it should.

      You can read more about Europe’s economic problems and pension reform here:

  5. Cathy
    October 22nd, 2010 at 14:05 | #9

    Very insightful and well resourced and thought out. I agree with pretty much everything you say and found the links quite helpful. I’m lucky that in my little corner of France, gas is still readily available and because it’s pretty rural, we don’t rely on public transportation. A bonus of moving away from the big city!

  1. October 19th, 2010 at 19:52 | #1
  2. October 20th, 2010 at 02:07 | #2

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