French trade unions remain defiant in face of defeat

French trade unions are still taking people out onto the streets, despite the pension reform they are protesting against being given the green light.

The new measures were passed by the country's Senate on Wednesday. The bill is moving closer to ratification despite weeks of strikes, demonstrations and public anger.

Still, out on the streets they say the show must go on.

As other Parisians look on drinking their coffee, trade union members and students continue to gather outside the French Senate, protesting against the reform that is almost guaranteed to take place.

“This is our third week on strike, and we are demonstrating against the reform. We've decided to mount resistance with no possibility of retreat. We are here because we have resolved that we have an obligation to complete our plans,” proclaims Joel Tuilliers, member of CGT (General Confederation of Labor).

These protests may look convincing enough on news broadcasts, but do the unions in France really hold any sway?

At the moment, it seems the only thing they have achieved is to cost the already struggling economy a shocking €200 million a day.

“As the protests spread across the country, they got out of the control of the trade unions. Throughout October the unions had only one tactic left – to lead the protests and try to tame them, to avert widespread violence,” observed Bernard Vivier from Institute Superieure Travail, trade unions’ think tank.

“Because of this, the risk we face is greater than just the spread of violence, which we've faced before. Now we have the blockade of production and disruption to traffic because of lack of fuel and blocked access to gas stations,” he explained.

However, this is unlikely to daunt the protestors, since they are hardly affected by these costs, said Douglas Webber, a professor of political science from the INSEAD Business School.

“For the most part, people who are actually on strike are in the public sector,” Webber said. “Apart from the fact that they won’t be paid for the days they are on strike, they won’t be affected by the negative economic fallout.”

Watch the full interview with Douglas Webber


In 1995, the same unions managed to shelve the pension reform, but the unions back then enjoyed much more public support. Now, half of the people say they support those on the streets – but will not go out themselves.

Today, only the two main trade unions are united in their fight against the pension reform, while in 1995 most of the French trade unions were as one on the streets.

Alain Juppé, who was prime minister in 1995, was seen as a cold technocrat. Even though current Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is not popular he still enjoys much higher ratings than Juppé in 1995.

But the main difference, it seems, is that the French people are tired of losing battles that drag on, grinding life in the country to a halt.

“There is an extremist, populist, radical current in France today, that encourages violent actions and this time they went too far,” acknowledged Bernard Vivier.

With the people losing patience with not only the government but also the never-ending protests, it appears public opinion is changing and the trade unions may well lose not only the battle, but the war as well.