domingo, 5 de junho de 2016
Strikes, floods, protests and sense of betrayal pile on misery for France
Strikes, floods, protests and sense of betrayal pile on misery for France
As the Euro 2016 tournament nears, its host country is struggling with violent strikes, extraordinary weather and a growing air of malaise
Kim Willsher in Paris
Saturday 4 June 2016 22.44 BST
Less than a week from the start of Euro 2016 and the French coq – symbol of the national football team – should be crowing to the cries of “Allez les Bleus”.
Instead, with days ticking down to the first match in the European championships on Friday, there is a pervasive atmosphere of gloom in France that has little to do with how the national side acquits itself, or the atrocious weather. Threats of terrorist attacks have been high on the list of concerns for months; recent torrential rain has brought floods to a swath of central Europe, including central France, where the river Seine burst its banks and brought parts of Paris to a standstill.
But what has depressed the national mood at what should be a time of celebration is the widespread threat of industrial action in the form of strikes, blockades and noisy, violent demonstrations against employment law reforms.
Suddenly, the eagerly awaited tournament has gone from being a chance for France to show off to an event that risks enforcing every negative cliche about the country. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” Paris-based entrepreneur Sabine Peters told the Observer last week. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, the French, they’re always on strike’, and here we are a few days from the Euros, a popular event we are hosting … and there are strikes. An entire society is being held hostage by a group of relatively few people acting out of self-interest. It’s sad, especially as there were signs that the economy was just starting to pick up.”
Since March, France has seen violent clashes between police and protesters, and strikes over proposed reforms to employment law. Dozens have been injured on either side; the ferocity of the attacks has shocked the nation.
Leading the strikes is the powerful Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), France’s oldest and biggest union, whose single aim is to have the new law thrown out. To that end it has organised the picketing of ports, power stations and fuel depots, leading to concerns over possible petrol shortages and electricity cuts, walkouts by train drivers and transport staff, and national days of action. As Euro 2016 draws nearer, the mouvement social (industrial action) has gained momentum and its motivations have become more diverse. Air France pilots, who are acknowledged as well paid, announced strikes for this week over general pay and conditions.
Prime minister Manuel Valls accused the CGT of blackmailing the country, but Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, leader of the governing Socialist party, said he did not believe “for a single second” that the union was “holding the country to ransom” or would disrupt transport during the tournament. “The image of France is at risk,” he warned.
The response from Fabrice Angei, national secretary of the CGT, was that the government had better believe it. “We’ve been demanding the government withdraw this law for three months, long before the Euros, so it’s clear we’re not blackmailing them over the tournament. If they had agreed to negotiate, we would not be in this situation. But Euro 2016 will not stop us from continuing our movement,” Angei told the Observer.
The CGT has called for a national day of action on 14 June, four days after the championship opens and the day after the debate on the bill opens in the French senate, whose centre-right majority will attempt to put back clauses – such as a proposal to end the 35-hour limit on the working week – that the government dropped to appease the unions.
The national disruption comes a year before a presidential election in which François Hollande’s chances of winning a second term appear nonexistent, even though figures show that France may be emerging from economic crisis. Last month the Economist said France’s economy was showing signs of growth and there were “indications that confidence is returning”.
Not quickly enough, perhaps, for Hollande and his Socialists, but then the confidence problem goes much deeper than opposition to one law, or even opposition to the party in power or the man at the Elysée. France is going through a long-term political existential crisis, summed up by the morose phrase, heard often of late, “France is unhappy”.
Angei admitted that discontent in France goes deeper than the labour law. “This law takes us back 200 years, but the battle has crystallised a lot of the unhappiness in France and has revealed the malaise that exists. The reason we’ve seen lots of people on the streets is because people feel this government has betrayed them.
“François Hollande was elected on a leftwing programme; he said he didn’t like the world of finance, then he comes to power and supports the bosses. The ordinary citizen sees this and doesn’t identify with this government.”
Mickael Maindron, 38, a technology consultant, said: “It’s true we’re not very happy at the moment, although the French do have a tendency to complain, but the political parties are asking us to make efforts and these efforts are not being translated into benefits in daily life. It feels like we’ve been in a state of permanent crisis for the last 30 years.”
Maindron, who advises small businesses and startups, says that trade unions and the government are out of touch with reality. “Small businesses are caught in the middle, and current working laws and practices serve to keep young people out of the jobs market while prioritising the rights of those already in jobs.
“All we want is more flexibility, and to be left alone to work and try to succeed. Some [union] people prefer to battle to keep their rights even if in the end they lose everything because the world has changed. They would rather fight not to change the rules, not to retrain, and for their company to close down altogether than accept a few job losses and save something. They disparage company leaders – but we are not all earning huge salaries and exploiting the staff; some of us pay ourselves less than the people who work for us.
A police line at a protest in Lyon. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images
“I sometimes feel France is not seeing how the world is changing around it. We have professional politicians who don’t live in the real world and never have. They go to the same schools, study the same programmes they’ve been studying for the last 100 years to be leaders and administrators. They’ve never worked one day in a business.”
Peters, whose company Gloss and Boss aims to help women who have taken a break, for family or other reasons, back into the workplace, said France was suffering a crisis of confidence. “We’re good at running ourselves down, and visitors come here and run us and the system down, so we’re conscious of that. There’s also a real problem in that only 8% of workers belong to unions but the unions have a monopoly, and the politicians are out of touch.
“There’s this paternalist idea of the company boss, and even the president as the bon père de famille looking after everyone, that we have to change. There are 3 million small and medium-sized businesses in France and most of them are run by men. We have to invert this mentality.”
Alexis Poulin, director of European media network EurActiv, added: “Social dialogue in France is always very antagonistic, so we see shows of force through demonstrations on the streets. But the biggest problem in France is that the people in power have a real credibility deficit. We don’t respect them any more.”
Outside, day after day of torrential rain has piled on the misery. South of Paris thousands of people were evacuated from Nemours and Montargis as floodwater swept through both cities, causing three deaths. Dozens of villages were left without electricity and running water. In the Métro, announcements of disrupted services alternated between blaming intempéries (bad weather) and mouvements sociaux for cancelled trains. Football fans are wondering how they will get to matches being held in cities far from the capital such as Bordeaux, Nice and Marseille.
Around 8 million people are expected at Euro 2016, generating an estimated €1.24bn (£970m) of business in France. The world’s eyes will be on Paris, which is bidding for the 2024 Olympics, and other French cities. In 2005, when the French capital made its bid to host the games – losing to London – unions held national strikes and demonstrations on the day Olympic committee members were due to visit. At the time the Guardian wrote: “The unions are angry about government plans that will affect a range of issues, including the 35-hour working week, jobs and salaries.”
Then, France was run by a centre-right government. Today the government is centre-left. Eleven years on, ordinary French people can be forgiven for a gloomy sense of plus ça change …