Why France Is on Strike and What It Means for Retail

Last Thursday saw a French general strike involving train and subway workers, bus drivers, haulers, teachers, airline ground crew, air traffic controllers and postal workers. There were also demonstrations across the country, the largest of which included roughly 800,000 protestors, took place in Paris.

However, while most people have since returned to work, the country’s transportation employees are still out and could potentially strike until Christmas or beyond, according to multiple local reports.

On Tuesday, reports suggest there will be another day of demonstrations as well as a potential mass walk-out. This comes ahead of the government revealing further details of President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reform, which are due to be announced Wednesday.

So what are these reforms and why are they causing so much outrage? They center on France’s “special regimes” pertaining to pensions. Right now, French citizens’ retirement age and level of remuneration depends on where they work. The country’s 42 “special regimes” are mainly extended to people employed in the public sector.

Protests in Paris on December 5.
Protests in Paris on December 5.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

For example, train and subway drivers can retire at 50 and 52 respectively. The average employee of RATP, which runs Paris’ public transport network, gets a monthly pension of around $4,100.  By contrast, people who work in the private sector have to wait til they are 62 and get $1,362 a month on average. The disparity arises because private-sector pensions are calculated on salary earned over 25 years, while those of some “special regimes” are based on an employee’s final six months in the workforce.

Macron’s government maintains this is unfair and wants to create a single points-based system where everyone’s pension is calculated in the same way over the course of an entire working life. Public sector unions argue that this will penalize people who have been out of work or started their professional life on a low salary.

According to a 2019 report by the French Research Directory of the Ministry of Solidarity and Health, 1.1 million or 6% of France’s 17.2 million pensioners belong to a special regime. In addition to transport workers, these include miners, bank staff and even employees of the Paris National Opera. The strikes and protests, however, are being spearheaded by the transport workers.

chanel, kaia gerber, metiers d'art 19/20
Kaia Gerber walks the runway during the Chanel Metiers d’Art ’19/’20 show in Paris.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Chanel

The French capital is feeling the impact of the transport shutdown. Chanel, which had been due to show its Métiers d’Art collection on Thursday, Dec. 5, moved it forward to Wednesday Dec. 4, to avoid disruption.

“The situation is bad,” an employee at the new Galeries Lafayette on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées told FN. “I’ve been coming in with my car over the last few days, but many people couldn’t get to work at all.”

It’s the small businesses that have suffered the most though. “We’re fearing for our survival,” stated the union representing independent shopkeepers in a letter published in the French newspaper Le Parisien. “For more than a year, there have been protests every Saturday by Yellow Vests, lawyers, police officers, nurses… and our customers have turned on their heels.”

“In Paris, Lille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Rouen, many of us saw our turnover drop. Some of us are drowning in bank charges, struggling to repay loans and have even closed down shops.”

According to the Institut Français de la Mode, the country’s sales of clothing and textiles have dropped by 1.3% in the first nine months of 2019.

France’s last major strike was in winter 1995, when three weeks of disruption forced a government U-turn on social policy. However, the country’s current Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has maintained in a statement that his government would not abandon the current plan. “If we do not make a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will make a really brutal one tomorrow,” he said.

The Galeries Lafayette-Champs Elysées flagship.
The Galeries Lafayette-Champs Elysées flagship.
CREDIT: Xavier Granet/WWD
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