OPINION: Tuesday’s strikes were huge, but they show the weakness of French unions

The latest French strikes were preceded by a boast from unions that they would 'bring France to a standstill' - John Lichfield looks at whether they succeeded at what this means for the unions themselves and for the weakened government of Emmanuel Macron.

OPINION: Tuesday's strikes were huge, but they show the weakness of French unions
Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

The day would be “historic”, we were told. France would be “blocked” or “closed down” and its economy “brought to its knees”. Demonstrations against pension reform would be the biggest for decades.  

Tuesday’s “day of action” – the sixth since the protests began in January – was impressive enough.

The official figure for the number of demonstrators nationwide – 1.28 million – WAS the biggest for decades but it was only a little higher than the turnout achieved on January 31st (1.27 million). The unions had hoped for many more.

The strikes on the railways and the Paris Metro, in schools and docks, oil refineries and power stations, were extremely disruptive. But they came nowhere near “closing down” France. Shops, offices and factories were barely touched.

Tens of thousands of people chose to work remotely from home. There were no big crushes  on Metro or suburban rail platforms.

The battle is far from over. Workers in the rail, Metro, oil, electricity, airport and docks industries have decided to continue the strikes indefinitely. They have, by law, to vote to do so every 24 hours. Judging by the improved traffic on the railways and in the Metro today, many of these strikes will weaken.

French pension strikes: What to expect throughout March

The petrol refining industry is the one to watch. We learned last October that a handful of determined strikers in the 12 petrol and diesel refineries in France – and panic buying by motorists – can cause filling stations to run dry in a couple of weeks.

On Tuesday evening, the leaders of the eight French trades union federations (in UK terms, eight different TUCs) met to survey the battlefield. Despite their usual high-flown claims of inevitable triumph (and their absurd over-counting of demonstrators), they made two decisions which amounted to an admission of weakness.

First, they rejected pressure from the more militant union branches for an open-ended general strike. Instead, they called two more days of strikes and marches, this Saturday and next Wednesday.

Secondly, they appealed for direct talks with President Emmanuel Macron – something they knew that he would refuse.

In the meantime, the pension reform legislation is moving steadily through the Sénat  or upper house of the French parliament. The key clause, Clause 7, increasing the official retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, will probably be approved by the Senators on Wednesday or Thursday. The legislation, slightly amended, will pass through the upper house by the government-imposed deadline of Sunday midnight.

Whether or not it will then command a majority in its second reading in the National Assembly (lower house) is still uncertain. About 10 centre-right Les Républicains deputies and three governement deputies say they will vote against or abstain.

If they all vote against, the legislation will fail. If some abstain and some vote against (the most likely outcome), the legislation will pass by a few votes.

Can Macron and his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne take the risk of allowing the parliamentary debate and voting to proceed? They have until the middle of next week to decide whether to use the nuclear option of “engaging the government’s responsibility” under Article 49.3 of the Constitution.

If they do so, the legislation passes unless the government loses a vote of censure. There is no chance of centre-right deputies supporting a censure vote which would imply a snap parliamentary election in which they would, almost certainly, lose many of their 61 seats.

Prime Minister Borne has declared, however, that she believes it would be wrong to use the Article 49.3 emergency power for such a controversial piece of legislation. She is a woman of her word. If Macron decides to railroad the legislation through the assembly in this way, I would expect her to resign.

The government has another option. If the second reading  debate is blocked in the National Assembly beyond the March 26th deadline, the government can impose the legislation by “ordonnances” or decrees. It has prudently framed the law as an amendment to Social Security legislation under Article 47.1 of the Constitution to provide this slightly less than nuclear, third option. 

The Assembly and Senate would still eventually have to vote to ratify decrees imposing pension reform. Macron and Borne may decide that they could rely on enough centre-right support to make that a formality. Securing the votes in the “normal” debate may be trickier.

If so, it would be in the government’s interest to spin out the debate beyond the March 26th deadline – something that the near-hysterical opposition to pension reform of the left-wing alliance, Nupes, is likely, paradoxically, to assist.

My gut instinct is that the legislation will pass before March 26th in the “normal” way. But the mood on the centrist government benches is fragile. The centre-right Les Républicains are divided. Mishaps are possible.

The two sovereign forces in French politics – the parliament and the street – are connected. If Tuesday’s strikes and marches had been more powerful, the nerves of wavering deputies might have been more severely tested.

What a muddle.

Macron may come to regret having insisted on the pension reform despite post-Covid fatigue, high inflation and the Ukraine war.

In truth, he had little choice.

If he had backed down, or if he loses, he will be paralysed domestically for the remaining four years of his mandate.

Stripped of the hyperbolic language on both sides, the pension reform is a modest affair. By 2030, France will still be retiring earlier than most of its EU partners, and Britain, do now.

Opinion polls suggest that the great majority of French people oppose working until they are 64 but they know that it is inevitable: they are angry but resigned, rather than angry but determined.

The country faces another three weeks or so of tumult before the battle is decided. On Tuesday, however, the unions suffered a de facto defeat.

They boasted that they they could “close down” the country. They showed that they could not.

Member comments

  1. John Lichfield’s writing is very interesting and very informative. I hope he continues to contribute to your news outlet.

  2. John is right. The French love a parade, especially one that annoys the government, but when it comes down to it they are, in general, realists.

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France court to rule on Macron pension reform on April 14th

France's highest constitutional authority will rule on President Emmanuel Macron's controversial pension reform on April 14th, it said on Wednesday, a verdict decisive for the future of the changes.

France court to rule on Macron pension reform on April 14th

The reforms were passed by parliament on March 16 after the government used a mechanism to bypass a vote by MPs,  inflaming nationwide protests.

They were considered adopted by parliament when the government survived two no confidence motions on March 20.

But the reforms can only come into law once they are validated by the Constitutional Council, which has the power to strike out some or even all of the legislation if deemed out of step with the constitution.

The council’s members — known as “les sages” (“the wise ones”) — will give two decisions when the ruling is made public on the legislation, whose headline measure raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The first will be on whether the legislation is in line with the French constitution.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember


And the second will be on whether a demand launched by the left for a referendum on the changes is admissible.

In line with government practice for contentious new laws, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne asked the council to rule on the changes on March 21.

But leftwingers in the lower house National Assembly and upper house Senate also asked the council for a ruling, as did far-right MPs in the lower house.

If a referendum was ruled admissible, backers would need to get the signatures of a tenth of the electorate — almost five million people — for it to be called.

The president of the council is Socialist Party grandee Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister who also served as finance minister and foreign minister in his long career.

Its verdict will be a critical juncture in Macron’s battle to impose the legislation, which has seen 10 days of major strikes and protests since January, most recently on Tuesday.

READ MORE: OPINION: In France even riots used to have rules, now political violence is spiralling

New clashes between police and protesters erupted in a movement that has been marked by increasing violence since the government used the constitution’s Article 49.3 to bypass a parliamentary vote and pass the legislation.

Unions have announced a new day of strikes and protests on April 6, just over a week before the council’s decision is announced.

“The absence of a response from the executive has led to a situation of tensions in the country which seriously worries us,” the unions said on Tuesday.