ANALYSIS: Will remote working curtail the power of French unions and strikes?

It's no secret that the French strike quite a lot, and that strikes are often concentrated on the public transport sector - but will a change in working patterns including more remote working mean that in the future transport strikes will be less effective? Gregor Thompson and Liuting Wang report.

ANALYSIS: Will remote working curtail the power of French unions and strikes?
Changing work patterns since the pandemic mean that French strikes may be losing their power. Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP

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

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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.