French Unions Slow Trains Amid Protest of Labor Law Reform

  • Eurostar link with London, Thalys service to Brussels affected
  • Hollande delayed overhaul of labor rules as resistance mounted

French unions hampered rail traffic around the country and to Paris airports as students and other unions demonstrated against proposals by President Francois Hollande’s government that would essentially spell an end to the nation’s 35-hour workweek.

The strike began Tuesday at 7 p.m. Paris time and is set to run through Wednesday. It will affect some Eurostar links to London and some Thalys services to and from Brussels, according to national rail operator SNCF. The RER B, which connects the French capital to its two main airports, will have one in four trains running to Charles-de-Gaulle and half the trains to Orly, and passengers will have to change trains at Gare du Nord. The Paris metro was running normally.

Unions are pushing back against a draft bill that would allow businesses to increase working hours with minimal compensation, cap severance pay and make it simpler for companies to eliminate jobs. Labor leaders timed the protests to coincide with a strike over pay and working practices among rail workers, a separate issue that helped add heft to the movement that student associations have now joined as well. A second demonstration day is planned for March 31.

“You know when a protest movement begins, but you don’t know where it will end,” said Nicolas Tenzer, director of the CERAP political studies institute in Paris. “The worry is not the unions, but the sense that in broader public opinion, on social networks, among students, there are signs the discontent is spreading.”

Several students unions, including Unef and the ruling Socialist Party’s own youth wing, plan demonstrations in Paris and other cities Wednesday. Some teachers also went on strike. The specter of a 2006 scenario in which student groups and labor unions teamed up for numerous large-scale protests across the country with demonstrations slipping toward violence is what prompted Hollande to delay the legislation.

“There is no gauge or evaluation at this point” of the extent of the protests, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said. “We are currently in the phase of dialog and of negotiation.” He said officials are trying to diffuse tensions on the streets.

Union Positions

The extent to which the protest movement gathers steam may well determine how far Hollande is willing to go in what may be one of his last major reforms before his mandate expires in just over a year.

The Confederation Generale du Travail and Force Ouvriere, the two most strident unions, are pushing the government to scrap the bill. “This is just the first day of demonstration,” FO chief Jean-Claude Mailly said on RTL radio Wednesday. “We aren’t saying that nothing should be done but we are against a total re-writing of the labor law. We don’t want workers rights to be altered.”

The Socialist president must also navigate resistance from within his own party. Martine Aubry -- the mayor of Lille and a former government minister who was the architect of the 35-hour workweek -- signed an open letter this week with Socialist lawmakers accusing Hollande of “enduringly weakening France” with his policies.

With his approval rating sliding and 13 months to turn around his political fortunes, the pressure on Hollande is building. First-quarter growth forecast cut by Bank of France today and confidence among manufacturers posting its biggest decline in three years.

“Francois Hollande may manage to leave everyone dissatisfied -- the left, and the unions but also the businesses that are expecting a lot from this reform,” Tenzer said. “This sort of reform is much easier to do at the beginning of a mandate. One gets the impression that a lot is being done by improvisation.”

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