On March 7th 2023, office worker Pauline, and her three flatmates were stuck at home. Metro line 9 which ordinarily takes them from their home in Montreuil, a suburb on the eastern outskirts of central Paris, to work in the centre was closed due to strikes.
According to the Interior Ministry, 1.28 million people took to the streets across France that day to combat the government’s deeply unpopular plan to reform France’s pension system – an initiative which involves raising the retirement age to 64 from 62. These protesters’ efforts were accompanied by a comprehensive cessation of public transport in France’s major cities.
But this was no problem for Pauline who took her work laptop home with her the previous evening.
“Though I support them, the strikes make no difference at all. We work from home two days a week anyway,” she said.
Although clearly remote working is not possible for some jobs, Pauline’s situation is not rare in France. Between 2019 and 2021, the share of people working at least one day a week from home went up from 4 percent to 27 percent. As télétravail is normalised, that percentage is expected to increase; only 1 in 5 people in France say they don’t want to work from home at all.
OPINION: Pension strikes were huge, but they show the weakness of the French unions
Associate professor of political economy at Sciences Po, Paris, Thomás de Barros says technology that gained traction during the Covid pandemic such as Zoom, Slack and even UberEats has accelerated the trend towards the decentralisation of work.
“Large parts of the workforce have no need to leave their homes. Productivity in those jobs will remain relatively unaffected by strikes,” says de Barros.
France’s historical proclivity towards transport strikes is no secret; the state-owned SNCF railway company says the country has had a rail strike every year since 1947.
In November 2019 – the last time President Emmanuel Macron attempted to pass pension reform – all of France’s main union federations joined together to stage the country’s longest-lasting transport strike in over fifty years.
Between December 5th and January 20th, rolling strikes occurred throughout France’s transport infrastructure keeping thousands of workers at home.
Pension reform is now back on the agenda, as are strikes, but new work culture developed during the pandemic may have made them less effective.
If this turns out to be the case, it compounds research undertaken by IAE Nancy Professor Patrice Laroche, which shows strikes already had a marginal impact on the macroeconomy because the lost activity is quickly made up in subsequent months.
De Barros says the fact transport strikes are less disruptive than before raises serious questions about whether they will be as politically consequential. Though he adds that there are too many factors to make concrete assumptions.
“France’s unions may have less to negotiate when it comes to transport strikes,” he says, “but high inflation will keep French citizens on the streets and Macron’s lack of majority in parliament severely weakens his hand. We will have to see.”
So far, changes in work culture are yet to impact the strategy of the unions who, with the help of the NUPES group of leftist political parties, remain heavily reliant on transport strikes for industrial action.
On March 7th, the unions began their campaign intended to “mettre la France à l’arrêt” (bring France to a standstill) using almost identical tactics to the ones used in 2019; mass protests and rolling transport strikes.
“We are going into a higher gear,” the head of the hardline CGT union Philippe Martinez told the Journal du Dimanche. “The protests will continue and grow until the government hears what workers want.”
On the ground though, there is some discomfort about the changing dynamics in the workplace affecting the productivity of their efforts.
On March 7th, engineer and Secretary General of the CFDT’s Hauts-de-Seine chapter Laurent Lhoste joined in on a major demonstration in Paris at Sèvres-Babylone. As he was getting ready to head towards Place D’Italie with thousands of other militants, he says it has become more difficult to prevent people from getting to work.
He adds that hybrid working poses other problems too: “First of all, because of hybrid working, we are losing company culture. Worker identity is less established” Lhoste says, “and, as for the unions, it can make it more difficult to reach employees.”
One tactic that may prove more effective is to block the country’s energy production and oil refineries.
In October 2022, an oil refinery strike of only a few hundred workers caused chaos across France, leading to enormous queues at gas stations and the hoarding of fuel. Lhoste echoed this sentiment, saying that “the big ambition right now is to block the refineries.”
The government’s deadline for a final vote on pension reform is March 26th, and it seems likely that strikes and protests will continue until then.
Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember