Reader Note on Strikes in France: “Pass the Popcorn”

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From Alison L via e-mail:

On the French news May 24 (France 2), the reporting was dominated by the CGT (one of the unions) on strike – they are blocking refineries where oil is distributed to gas stations etc. There are long lines, rationing and gas shortages at the pump. 25% of the country has shortages including the north and Paris, and the southwest.

The CEO of Total, Patrick Pouyanné, made threatening noises about withdrawing investment from sites in France. Total employs 33,000 people in France, and has 5 refineries. Total plans to invest 600 million euros, and that is what they are threatening to withdraw. Of course they deny that it is blackmail.

The workers are very determined to persuade the (socialist) government of François Hollande, who is unpopular, to withdraw the “loi El Khomri” or labor law reforms (the relevant minister is the young Myriam El Khomri) that the unions and other workers in France have perceived as reducing their rights and protections.

The strikes are inspiring others to go on strike, and the “contrôleurs” at airports, or at least CDG in Paris and ALL civil aviation workers there are going to strike on June 5. Train workers will strike May 25 and 26, and the SNCF (national rail) from May 31 in a possibly indefinite strike, and RATP (Paris public transport and métro) from June 2 onward. Dockworkers this Thurs & Fri will strike throughout France.

The Euro Cup football (soccer) tournament starts in about 2 weeks, so this is NOT ideal for the government. Naturally, the tone-deaf Hollande missed the point, and is digging in and refusing to revisit the labor law reforms that have caused so much turmoil and unrest. If Hollande does not fold in the coming days, it is going to be chaos in France right before the Euro Cup and high tourist season and summer travel. The workers who were interviewed at the strike sites were in good humor and practical; they know exactly what they are doing and why. Unions are warning of strikes of unlimited duration.
(they claim Total has 6 refinery sites, but I believe the French news reporting of 5 sites)

Also, this is bigger than just oil refinery workers.

However, they did this to Sarkozy in 2010 over pension reforms:

Any reader intelligence, either from on the ground or from French sites or Twitter very much appreciated. Please keep us appraised either via e-mail or in the comments section of Links as this struggle progresses.

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  1. Ana Lien

    You have more guts than the American workers’ Unions! Alex jus qua la victories!
    Supported Bernie Sanders en Amerique!

      1. Arizona Slim

        Likewise, the Teamsters Union. Last summer, the local for the Tucson city bus drivers union walked out. And stayed out for six weeks. Management tried advertising out of state for scabs, and that was all over the news and the intertubes in, oh, a nanosecond. Those ads disappeared right-quick.

        The local consensus is that the Teamsters won.

    1. hemeantwell

      You have to wonder whether the MSM is cold-watering this as the coronation approaches. I’m sure they are aware of political “contagion” processes, going back at least to the Arab Spring uprisings.

      1. digi_owl

        Meh, the arab spring thing didn’t hit the fan until peoples access to news was cut when the national net connections were severed. This in turn lead them to actually stepping onto the streets to keep up with goings on rather than sit home and watch the screens. And in turn that pulled them into the masses.

  2. Praedor

    So happy to see this. I only wish this sort of labor organization and coordination would happen here in the US. Workers have been so (intentionally) fractured and weakened, the workers successfully turned on each other in compute compute competition for scraps that all US labor does is duck and cover. Maybe we could get a trade deal going that would increase imports of French labor spirit and fraternity to the US.

    1. Praedor

      Damn tablets and autocorrect. The workers in the US have been successfully turned on each other in competition for scraps. The mission of neoliberalism.

    2. reslez

      Similar things still happen in the US, though I agree they’re rare. Last year the longshoremen went on a months long slowdown in west coast ports during contract negotiations.

      If a general strike expanded to as many labor unions as in France, however, I expect Obama would classify the union leaders as terrorists and send in paramilitary troops. In the US the government doesn’t tolerate uppity workers.

  3. Clive

    What’s really worthy of note to me is the completely anechoic coverage in the mainstream media. Even (ha ha ha) neutral-left leaning outlets. Just checked through both The Guardian and BBC, dug down into the “World” news section then into “Europe” — nothing at all that I could find. Now, if this was the U.S. media we were talking about, I could understand it. But France is right next to us and, from my mother-in-law’s house, I can be in Normandy quicker than I can be in central London sometimes if I time the ferries right.

    Put it this way, until Yves ran Alison’s note, I had absolutely no idea about any of this. And I read tonnes, and I mean tonnes, of stuff daily including a lot of international coverage.

    My anecdotal: pinged my friend in Monaco, she said that at Nice Cote D’Azur there were some pretty horrid delays yesterday, everyone was “moaning a little” (that’s a bit of a Britishism, usually means fairly dire, a couple of steps up from borderline cataclysmic) about the packed out departure lounges and queue to get into the airport in the first place. Anyone who didn’t really have to fly out that day was cancelling.

    1. Clive

      Apparently, and I didn’t fully appreciate this until I carried on my earlier conversation just now, there’s not a huge amount air capacity in France for domestic flights, a lot of internal journeys are done on the high speed network (TGV). So if people think they can’t travel on the railways, there’s a scramble for a limited number of seats on flights. That’s what causing the delays, the flights are pretty full and they’re playing catch-up. A rail strike in the U.S. wouldn’t be noticed by many people except maybe disproportionally vocal Acela riders, in France it has a much bigger impact.

    2. samhill

      Put it this way, until Yves ran Alison’s note, I had absolutely no idea about any of this. And I read tonnes, and I mean tonnes, of stuff daily including a lot of international coverage.

      moi aussi

    3. Stephen Gardner

      Take a look at L’expresse. They are heavily covering the strikes. Electricity cuts, reactor shutdowns, gasoline shortages, lots of pictures. The neoliberal bias of English language media is showing. If the peasants don’t know other peasants are in revolt then they might be able to prevent contagion. But, Google translate makes the press of many languages available to British and American peasants. Of course many Canadians read French anyway.

    4. grayslady

      I read about this two days ago on RT. RT is my daily go-to source for world news that the propaganda press refuses to print. As long as you filter the understandable bias on stories about Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet bloc countries, the rest of the reporting is factual and informative.

    5. jsn

      Pace this and “Where Did The Bernie Sanders Movement Come From”, its becoming increasingly clear to more and more people that most ostensible “news” sources are propaganda.

      Any Left action is invisible to our Corpretulent media and if they could just kill of the unwalled wilderness of the internet, corral us all into Facebook, Apple or some other walled garden, the Utopia of Credit could continue until the redundant population dies, all without upsetting the reading of the rentier elect.

      It will be interesting to see if the NYT can ignore the next 300,000 person march as successfully as it did before Iraq. Credibility erosion appears to be logarithmic, and once gone very difficult to recover.

    6. Ignacio

      There is decent coverage in Spain and the situation is labelled as “serious”. If the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, decides, as he declares, to keep firm against the unions this can become the issue of the year.

      1. Ignacio

        The french government has forbidden demonstrations because they are “getting violent against the police”. This is illustrated with a video in the following link:

  4. vidimi

    as someone who doesn’t own a car and lives in central paris and uses only one line of the metro to commute, i have been fairly insulated from this firsthand but do see it on social media, where people post photos of queues at gas stations and from colleagues at work. the El Khomri law is vile and the unions’ initiative is to be lauded, and i’ll look for a way i can get involved as well.

    1. Tenar

      Same. That will likely change as of June 2nd, when the RATP will go on strike. Around 40% of Parisians use the RATP to get around Paris. That number jumps to a whopping 70% for those who commute between Paris and the suburbs.

  5. Squid

    TOTAL announces that it might not spend 600 million Euro in a country where the investment could be compromised by uncertain labor conditions. The sum would create, at most, a few dozen permanent refinery jobs. BLACKMAIL! MONSTERS!

    Labor unions shut down the France’s busses, rails, airports; inconvenience millions, cause billions in lost revenues. Threaten to make the pain last indefinitely. RIGHTEOUS NEGOTIATING TACTICS BY ENLIGHTENED WORKERS! VIVE LA FRANCE!


  6. Brooklin Bridge

    This is all closely related to a dispute over proposed changes to France’s labor laws; a truly shameful chapter in the so called French political left’s current history.

    From Alison L’s link to Politico’s article on fuel shortages, you find another link to

    Even in this link, one has a hard time finding exactly what the proposed changes to the labor laws are, but they provide yet another link, which sort of covers them.

    What you have is the so called leader of the French socialist party with his tongue wedged deep, deep, waay deep up the derriere of industry offering significant reductions in the requirements regarding hiring and firing and general labor rules that took the French decades to build up during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. And they call this pit of treacherous sell out on the part of Hollande an effort to show he is a “reformist.”

    The French have a long history of truly brave citizens/students protecting their rights and those people have been vilified along with their frequent strikes over and over again but I had lost sight of just how much the way people even talk about these things has been turned entirely upside down and inside out in France and elsewhere – using the United States, no doubt, as a model.

    While these articles are clearly English/American versions of current events, I am told they are not too far off the language being used in French media to describe the same thing. I say this simply because of the stunning reversal of what such terms as “leftist” or “reformist” (applied of all things to Holland) are being twisted to mean.

    It’s a crazy mixed up burlesque of former times as if some insane theater troupe had come up with a play where all the actors exchanged costumes while keeping their original characters and used words in the script meaning the exact opposite of what their definitions are and then the audience told that if they didn’t accept every word and gesture, they would be considered terrorists and dealt with accordingly.

    1. BillC

      One additional damning detail, for a government that calls itself “socialist:” the law being protested was imposed in a legal but very unusual process by government decree, bypassing parliamentary debate or vote. It looks they knew they didn’t have the votes, but apparently thought that the folks would just whimper and swallow the usual Brussels-dictated “reform” as a fait accompli.

      Here in Italy, where legislating by decree is a near-daily occurence (our parliament being famously dysfunctional), Renzi’s “Democratic” party imposed its “Jobs Act” the same way. (Yep, that’s what they call it — the Americanized English being my clue the Jobs Act is simply stenography dictated by the neoliberal elite.) While there have been large Italian union demonstrations in opposition, nobody’s actually shut down much of anything and what little ruckus there is seems to be dying down. The French unions may be doing a better job of representing their members’ economic interests than any of their other European brethren.

      And a second chilling parallel for those of us who would like to cling to the idea of enlightened left-wing governments in Europe: in both countries, the “reforms” were guided to imposition by politically fresh young female government Ministers acting with seeming enthusiasm under orders of their party’s Prime Minister.

      I’m quite encouraged to finally see some real rubber-meets-the-road resistance to Brussels’ Diktats and I wish them success. Unfortunately, it threatens to disrupt a 10-day Loire cycle tour that we’ve been planning for over a year with friends flying into Paris tonight from the States. We’re going to do our best to get there anyway, but from everything I can gather from the Italian media (pretty good coverage), Le Monde’s Web site, and the cable channel France24, seems likely that it’s going to take a good bit of improvisation and patience to get to the starting line.

      1. Tenar

        Interesting information on Italy, thanks!

        Concerning Myriam El Khomri, the Labor Minister: In November of last year, a video of her giving an interview went viral after it became clear that she didn’t know how many times a a CDD (short-term contract) could be renewed. This is a relatively important point because 85% of newly signed contracts are CDDs (as opposed to CDIs, which are long-term contracts). Everyone was a bit surprised, seeing as it seemed like the sort of thing a Labor Minister should know…

        Bon courage for your upcoming trip!

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        Very informative comment, thanks! Sorry to hear about the disruption to the race. Strikes in France have always been frustrating, but I’ve come to realize just how necessary they were and are – if anything more so now than ever. Other countries, such as the US, have done such a poor job defending the worker. Our unions, or many of them, have been sell outs for 40+ years.

      3. Kurt Sperry

        When the trains and public transport go on strike in Italy it will generally be in the form of a ‘sciopero bianco’ with service continuing on a reduced schedule but still on a schedule. The Trenitalia site even will have schedule tables to help you cope. I’d liken the Italian public transport system under sciopero bianco conditions roughly similar to the US public transport system at full function.

  7. Expat

    French unions have hair-trigger strike reactions and threaten hundreds of strikes each year while carrying out only a few. Participation in unions is relatively low but French law and custom means that a small number of striking union members can easily create an industry-wide strike.

    As for their behavior (blocking access to private business or public roads), this is illegal but tolerated since the government has a hard time bashing heads in public and since the police are themselves unionized and “strike-happy”. Burning cars and buildings is de rigueur for any serious strike!

    And while this is all very annoying to the rest of us and we complain loudly about “spoiled” union workers who have it sooo easy, the truth is the unions know what the risks are. They have seen the coal miners broken by Thatcher and the American unions nibbled away at until they are pointless. Each small crack in the their rights and privileges is fought for as if it were essential, and it is.

    Union workers and government workers were promised short careers, short hours, moderate pensions and moderate wages in return for jobs. Successive governments have given them concessions in return for votes and stability. Why should they give up these rights when the wealthy citizens have gotten fat and are getting fatter?

    I hated the unions when I lived in Paris and frankly am not thrilled by them today since I have two cars and Total shares, but I understand what they are fighting for. It’s not a cushy life of caviar and champagne like their “socialist” leaders in Paris. It’s jobs and job security. `

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I’ve seen similar strikes in Greece blocking access to public roads. I don’t remember the particular issue that caused the strike but many years ago I was on bus traveling the main east-west road (and I believe the only one at the time) on Crete and we had to stop due to a strike blocking the road. The strikers had set up a little party and were roasting a goat IIRC. I heard lots of spoiled tourists complaining that they’d never come back to this backwater country again for a vacation and needless to say the strikers made their point quite well.

      Oxi! to austerity and vive la revolution!

    2. flora

      Is the French govt hoping the public turns against the unions? Does the public privately sympathize with the unions? In the US the unions have been crushed, which was the first step in lowering everyone’s (not just union members) salary and benefits while enriching Wall St.

      1. Expat

        French people have a very mixed view of these things. Most are annoyed by the strike and complain about the unions ruining the country, blah blah blah. But they also know they benefit greatly from the same system and don’t want to lose their own privileges and benefits.

        French are humans like everyone else. They want reforms that help but only if those reforms don’t cost them a thing. This includes the rich, who, contrary to popular belief, are not stripped bare of their riches in France. There are plenty of loopholes, exemptions and nod-and-a-wink tax evasions to help them out. So they don’t want to rock the boat either.

        Unions or at least the union spirit (liberté, fraternité, égalité) are still at the heart of French democracy. There is an understanding among most French that a nation is made of people, not things. Rules and practices exist which help the nation but don’t necessarily maximize shareholder returns. Call that “evil socialism” if you like, but my measured response would be “fuck you very much.”

  8. oho

    ahh, the French Socialist Party takes a page from the US Democrats.

    Push identity politics—(in the case literally—with a minister of Maghreb descent) while turning the screws on the blue-collar class.

    And pundits are shocked over the rise of Front National?

  9. oho

    I forgot Hollande’s election campaign–Le changement, c’est maintenant (“Change is now”).

  10. RUKidding

    Thanks for this post and for comments from abroad. Here in the USA, we’d most likely know nothing or very little about it. Good to learn about it. Keep us posted. Will be interested to learn how this plays out. All the best to striking workers.

  11. EmilianoZ

    The French are in the same position as the Greeks. They can either accept the reforms or get out of the euro. Germany aint gonna prop up France for ever.

    1. reslez

      By “prop up” you mean France buying German products? Yes, I agree that will not continue forever, if Germany insists on inflicting its destructive economic policies on its customers.

  12. wendy davis has been covering the strikes, as has Telesur, w/ this addition:

    “Workers at France’s hardline CGT union have voted for a 24-hour strike at Nogent-sur-Seine nuclear plant starting Wednesday at 1900 GMT, extending a standoff with the government over labor laws that is also affecting oil refineries.

    “It will start tonight at 21:00 and last 24 hours,” CGT spokesman Laurent Langlard said of the move at the plant which is south east of Paris. Workers at other nuclear plants were due to meet on Wednesday to decide on possible further strikes, he said.”

    Sorry to drop raw links; but needs must. (h/t to a commenter at my home website.)

    And according to Guardian coverage of the (ahem) negotiations:

    ” Strikes are expected to start tomorrow when workers at the Piraeus Port Organisation and Thessaloniki Port Organisation begin a 48-hour walk-out in opposition to the controversial privatisation programme the government has signed up to.

    Adedy, which represents employees in the public sector, has also decided to hold a Pan-Hellenic work stoppage on June 8. “We decided, today, after meeting health and education federations that we would take this action to protest all the things that these new measures mean: lack of staff, underfunding, appointments that should, but will never happen,” Adedy’s chief policy maker, Grigoris Kalomoiris told the Guardian.”

  13. reslez

    From the politico link:

    Despite riot police forcing their way past protesters to gain access to fuel depots in order to release more supply, shortages were hitting an estimated 20 percent of gas stations


    In 2010, former President Nicolas Sarkozy came up against a similar situation over his attempt to overhaul the pension system. The government held fast and after days of a tense standoff, the strikers relented and fuel started flowing once again.

    Interesting to see the government has already sent in riot police and that specific type of strike has happened before.

    Also interesting that the English language Wikipedia article on the 2010 strikes doesn’t really talk about the outcome. The French version is more detailed but also doesn’t discuss whether the strikers were successful in moderating the reforms. The politico link makes it sound like the protesters climbed down. From what I remember, they didn’t succeed in getting the pension age lowered again (Sarkozy raised it to 67, which it has been in the US for decades, but only for people born after the Baby Boom, e.g. those now in their 40s or younger). I think the protests were successful in smaller ways, one article mentions pension rates for mothers who interrupt their careers to care for children. Not sure the extent.

  14. ekstase

    From France:

    “The government is so far sticking to a tough line, branding the CGT an irresponsible minority in an attempt to deprive them of sympathy and stop the protest movement from spreading.”

    I wonder why they don’t try something like that in this country!

    But seriously, folks.

  15. Bunk McNulty

    Well, there goes my summer vacation…somehow I think my planned journey by TGV from Strasbourg to Quimper on June 4 ain’t gonna happen.

  16. Peter Van Erp

    The BBC World News had a brief note about the long gas lines and the refinery worker’s strike on my local Nice Polite Republican radio station.

  17. luftmensch

    also over in here in Holland,a country where everybody is supposed to be happy,equal,free there is a deafening silence when it comes to what is happening in France,apparently the adagium”Ignorance is strength”is thought to be best way we should at reality by the media&their censors

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