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Strikes in France – what to know

France strikes - taken from The Economist (link below)

France strikes – taken from The Economist (link below)

Essential reading from The Economist (May 27)
Article here focuses on all that is going on in France.

Update May 27 from US Embassy Paris:

Full link to travel advisory

“…The following strikes have been announced for the week of May 30:

Rail – The national unions which represents rail workers renewed their call for strikes limiting rail services along the TVG, RER and SNCF networks. An “unlimited strike” is scheduled to start at 9 am on Tuesday, May 31 for a period of at least 24 hours.

Paris-area Public Transportation – The union representing the Paris metro area transportation (RATP) has called for an “unlimited strike” starting on June 2 of all public transportation services, including the Paris metro, buses, and RER trains.

Air – Air traffic controllers have also called for strikes Friday, June 3 to Sunday, June 5 which could result in delays or cancellations of flights originating in France…”

By now, you have probably heard that France has been undergoing rounds of strikes and protests over the past couple months. This is in large part due to proposed labor reforms. Of course most of you know that strikes and public outcry are a way of life in France that most people tend to accept with a shrug.

The Local France has an interesting piece on this cultural reality, as well as countless publications in the past including BBC and Slate. Even The Onion got in on the humor with a fake French protest image back in 2005.

But this time seems to be different: these are arguably the strikes with the most impact in 20 years. Taken with the ongoing “state of emergency” that France has put into place since the November terrorist attacks (and have extended), France has a palpable undercurrent of tension.

For now, what you should know about the strikes: 
These strikes are affecting transportation, oil refineries, nuclear power stations and more throughout the country. The BBC outlines the main points of the proposed reforms here along with more coverage of the action. I’ve laid those out at the end of this post.

The Economist also has an interesting piece on the strikes – anticipating action throughout the summer.

Another useful guide is from the great folks at The Local. Local resources in France for tracking news updates include the SNCF website, which currently states that traffic should start resuming to normal May 27 but to keep abreast of updates. Their travel agency Voyages SNCF also has a helpful resource for train travel updates.

You should also stay abreast of airline travel through your local airline. Aéroports de Paris does have general updates as well for Paris Orly and Paris CDG traffic.

BFM TV, Libération, France 24 and Le Monde are also great resources.

At the time of this being published, there have been clashes reported by protestors in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux and other major cities. Your local embassy should be the best resource for expat nationals living and traveling in France for up to date security information. The US Embassy, for example, has contact info here and updates on their Twitter feed.

Want to brush up on your French travel vocabulary? Try About.com or FluentU.

If you have travel plans to France or are thinking of moving there in the coming year, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so – just do your research and travel intelligently. I have lived in France for 30% of my entire life at different times as an intern, student, grad student, English teacher and employee. It is a place that is dear to me, and I would love for you to also have those life-changing experiences.

Travel smartly, safely and avoid protest areas. Take a lesson from my French friends and enjoy life, drink some wine and sit back to see how this evolves. C’est la vie, enfin.

French labour reform bill – main points

  • The 35-hour week remains in place, but as an average. Firms can negotiate with local trade unions on more or fewer hours from week to week, up to a maximum of 46 hours
  • Firms are given greater freedom to reduce pay
  • The law eases conditions for laying off workers, strongly regulated in France. It is hoped companies will take on more people if they know they can shed jobs in case of a downturn
  • Employers given more leeway to negotiate holidays and special leave, such as maternity or for getting married. These are currently also heavily regulated

Strong showing for left, far right in French local elections “cantonales”

The far right (Front National, FN) seems to be gaining ground in France, in the personality of Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the ultra-conservative former presidential candidate who made it to the second round of elections in 2002 against Jacques Chirac).

They recently received over 15% of the vote in the first round of France’s department local elections, les cantonales (compared to 17% for Sarkozy’s UMP Party, 25% for the PS Socialist Party, see graphic below). Although the abstention rate was very high (around 55%), it is an important alert for many French and politicians.

For France, there are worries about crime, immigration (specifically Muslim immigrants) and other issues that motivate people to vote for the hard-line party FN. But this is not a French phenonmenon, as the far right has a growing influence around Europe.

I wrote about these elections in Bonjour Paris and how the decline in Sarkozy’s popularity could undermine the strength of UMP’s election results. In fact, some members of UMP and even Sarkozy’s cabinet have called for voters to choose archrival PS (Socialists) in case the choice was between PS and FN.

Next step: the 2nd and final round of the elections will take place this Sunday March 27.

You can read more about this and the far right movement on France24 (English, excerpts below), Figaro (French, conservative), Libération (French, liberal), BBC News and The Economist. The Figaro most notably has department by department results of the election. They also have a special section on the elections.

Local elections see gains for left and far right

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives lost ground in nationwide local elections on Sunday that saw a low voter turnout and significant gains by opposition left-wing parties and the far-right National Front.

AP – French leftists and the resurgent far right enjoyed strong showings in local elections Sunday that left President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing conservatives struggling to maintain prominence.

Sarkozy’s role in launching the international military intervention in Libya on the eve of the voting did not immediately appear to have swayed the outcome of the voting in France’s cantons.

The elections for France’s smallest administrative segment are relatively minor, but they are the last test of parties’ nationwide strength before next year’s presidential elections.

Turnout was about 45 percent, low for France, the Interior Ministry said. The prime minister, anguished by the low participation, urged voters to turn out for the runoffs March 27.

The opposition Socialists enjoyed the most votes overall with about 25 percent of votes, according to preliminary results Sunday night from the Interior Ministry.

Sarkozy’s UMP party and allied parties had about 32 percent of votes, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said. But French television and rival parties said the UMP itself had less than 20 percent of the vote.

The far right National Front had about 15 percent of the vote, Gueant said. The party is riding the wave of popularity of its new leader, Marine Le Pen, who has tapped into worries about Muslim immigrants.

Le Pen took the party leadership in January from her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, an icon in French politics for decades who worried millions of French voters and neighboring countries when he made it into the runoff in 2002 presidential elections.

Recent opinion surveys have showed Sarkozy’s approval ratings at historic lows. Leftist voters are angry at his cost-cutting measures and say he is too cozy with corporate interests. Many conservatives are disappointed that he has not been bolder about loosening up the labor market and hasn’t eased tensions between police and youth in suburban housing projects.

A win in a cantonal election gives candidates a seat on councils overseeing France’s departments, or provinces.

Japan nuclear risks and European worries about nuclear power

As BBC News reports, the current nuclear risks (and potential meltdown disaster) in Japan has brought public fears about nuclear power to the forefront of debate in several European countries, including France and Germany. Some political parties, including the Europe Ecologie, want to hold a referendum (public vote) on nuclear power in France.

Conservative daily Figaro has a poll on this issue, to which, at the time of publication, over 73% of French said there should NOT be a referendum on the issue. As the BBC highlights below, logistically speaking, it is nearly impossible to imagine France getting rid of its reliance on nuclear power, as 75% of its energy comes from it (with 19 nuclear plants and 58 reactors making it the 2nd biggest network after the US). Figaro also has an article about the risks of nuclear power.

French liberal, gauche daily Libération has an in-depth feature on this question, with a map of France’s nuclear installations that I’ve pasted below.

The French government has indeed said it wants to “learn lessons” from this case to optimize the security of France’s nuclear installations, which government officials assure have little risk.

What do YOU think?

BBC excerpts:

“…France gets 75% of its energy from nuclear power, exporting the excess and earning useful currency by so doing. In addition, some in government want to sell French reactors to emerging economies. Greenpeace immediately called for a reversal of this nuclear policy which France embraced in the 1970s after the “oil shock” when the price of oil jumped. The group Sortir du Nucleaire protested by the Eiffel Tower, unfurling banners saying “Nuclear is killing the future”.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who is a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, told French radio that there should be a national referendum on the country’s dependence on nuclear power. “It begs the question of the need for civil nuclear power,” he said. “Is it not time to sound the alarm?” This is difficult for the government because France’s dependence is so great.

French media reaction to US midterms

November 3rd, 2010 4 comments

Following my post on US election coverage in France, the media is now reacting to the results: a convincing Republican victory in the House of Representatives, in state legislatures and governors races, whereas the Democrats held on to a majority – though not fillibuster proof of 60 – in the Senate. If you want inside DC news, I recommend Politico. BBC has a quality special report on the elections as well. The Economist also features an insightful debate about the outcome of the elections and what they could mean for US politics in the next couple years:

http://economist.pb.feedroom.com/pb-comp/economist/custom8/player.swf?Environment=&SiteID=economist&SiteName=TheEconomist&SkinName=custom8&ChannelID=13f850c882b46b0d9f3ebe670ff8fa7cade671c7&StoryID=1ff082cd3d0e256fa57b768554dab0c48cad8175&Volume=.5

On the French side, Le Figaro has a special report covering the people, the events and the US political system with insight. In an interesting poll asking readers if they are satisfied by the US election results, the responses are almost split: just over 50% say “no”, begging the question if readers of the Figaro are happy that Obama suffered a political setback, that the US government will be split or if they are relieved Democrats held on to the Senate. It would be better to have some context here.

France 24 gives a special video report on the results and presents complete coverage.

Libération has a special report on the elections as well. Le Point adds to the mix with interesting pieces on Obama and the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party.

Le Monde writes a feature on the same subject and gives an interesting video of how the elections were viewed from France.

Stratfor offers an interesting analysis of foreign views of the US midterms and Obama abroad.

Bonjour Paris – French strikes update

October 30th, 2010 No comments

I write for Bonjour Paris and this week focus on an update on the French strike situation and the government pension reform. It looks like the strike action is down, after relatively low turnout on Oct. 28, but Nov. 6 strikes are still planned, and some public transport will still be disrupted. For flights, best to check with your airline company beforehand that your flight is still on schedule. I will update my blog accordingly too. Excerpts below:

from Figaro

Logistically, how is France faring now? Oil refineries are opening back up, as workers are heading back to their jobs after strikes blocked the refineries around the country. All 12 refineries will be open now. But as of Thursday there were still about 20% of service stations with a shortage of fuel, thereby impacting those taking the long Toussaint weekend for travel.

There were minor disturbances on the transport systems of the major cities in France and on the SNCF railways, but overall there was less action this time around. Indeed, even the liberal Libération conceded a weak turnout, saying the movement “was on leave” but that the unions would likely strike back again. But conservative Figaro says that given the low turnout, there are doubts about the momentum of the movement. Figaro also put out a great graphic comparing retirement systems across countries.

So far, strike action is still planned for Saturday Nov. 6. I will update my blog on the strike situation for transport, and you can also find information on SNCF here and other info from France 24. If you are flying, call your airline company for specific information on flight cancelations and delays. For public transport options from Paris airports to downtown, check out this site, knowing that during strikes, it is best to avoid the RER B and opt for another choice.

To end, I leave you with two insightful pieces – albeit from an “Anglo-Saxon” perspective – about the French strikes. The first one from BBC News compares strikers in France to those in other countries. Then The Economist writes that strike action is less powerful than it used to be: “Mr Sarkozy took a bet that there was a silent majority prepared to accept change, however much they disliked it. It looks like paying off.”

French strikes go into overdrive

October 19th, 2010 10 comments

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!

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