French railway strikes: 4 questions answered

A train station in Paris
A train station in Paris
By Anelise Borges
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Business and commuters are feeling the pain, but are French strikes achieving their goal?

French train workers have been holding rolling strikes for almost a month in a battle against president Emmanuel Macron's plan to reform the rail system.

Have the strikes achieved anything?


So far, the strikes have mainly served to one thing: show how determined both sides are. Talks seem to have hit a wall and neither the various unions involved in the strikes or the government appear ready to back down.

Laurent Brun - the rail workers representative for the CGT, France's biggest trade union, says workers are ready to continue this strike for “as long as necessary”.

But behind the scenes, many recognize that it is getting harder for the unions to mobilise workers and the SNCF says the strike is losing steam: the rate of strikers taking part on Monday was the lowest since the industrial action began -- at 17.45%

This figure is significantly lower than the rate of 33.9% registered on April 3rd, the first day of strikes.

Meanwhile, the government has shown no sign of backing down either: French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has repeatedly said that the situation is unsustainable and has vowed to “see this reform through the end”.

Are people changing their views as the strikes go on?

The strikes have been causing havoc for French commuters two days out of every five since the start of April, but - perhaps not surprisingly as this is France - many people still declare themselves in favour of the movement.

An Ifop poll released on Sunday shows that 43% of French people continue to back the strikers in their quest to defend the ‘cheminot’ status that guarantees certain specific rights to railway workers.

Rail unions are gambling on that support to continue their movement, but as weeks turn into months this will be a major test for them.

However, the vast majority of people I have been interviewing actually said the contrary: they don’t think the strikes are justified and believe there are other ways to defend the ‘cheminots’ cause.

Some said they think it’s unfair to “take an entire country hostage” in order to defend one sector of workers.

Globally, there is a certain level of resignation in the air: people have grown used to social movements like the one France is facing now.

In fact in the course of the past 70 years, the SNCF has conducted strikes in 67 of them.

Are they impacting the economy?

Surely, but it has been hard so far to quantify the losses.

The SNCF says it is losing some €20 billion per day of strike, while small shops and boutiques which operate inside train stations across France have been reporting losses of 70% per day during the walkouts.

The French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said rail workers' rolling strikes have started to have an impact in other sectors including tourism, but no definitive figures have been release so far.

Back in 1995, major strikes virtually paralyzed France and cost the country 0.2 percentage points of GDP.

Will we see more industries going on strike in the coming months?

Several other sectors have already joined in this wave of strikes: students, hospital and energy sector staff, trash collectors as well as Air France employees are among those taking part.

And public-sector workers have just called their own day of strikes and demonstrations for May 22. They say they want to denounce low salaries and poor working conditions.


This is the largest and most important industrial unrest since President Emmanuel Macron's election last May and represents one of the toughest challenges yet of his presidency. Whether he will be able to push forward in his project to reform France is anyone’s guess. But one this is certain – it will be messy.

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