France Prepares For Travel Mayhem As Transport Unions Join Protests

May 31, 2016
Originally published on June 2, 2016 2:46 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

France's socialist government is in the middle of a big fight with one of the country's most militant unions over changes to the labor law. This time it'll mean delays and cancellations for train commuters. The union leading the fight says the disruption will last several days and will be repeated every week.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is covering the dispute and joins us from the town of Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy. And Eleanor, you've been traveling outside Paris to try to get a sense of what's happening in this dispute. Are the protests widespread? Are they getting any bigger?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Robert, it's definitely getting longer. Not everyone across the country is affected every strike. But, you know, more unions will walk out this time and we may have pilots involved, so air traffic could be disrupted. And the disruption is beginning to wear people down, even for a population who's used to it.

And I will tell you this - the longer it goes on, the higher the stakes are getting. In just 10 days, France is going to host the Euro Soccer Cup, and the government is under enormous pressure to solve this crisis before then. It has to provide security for hundreds of thousands of fans who will come - in stadiums and fan zones. And just today, the U.S. State Department said that those areas were potential terrorist targets.

SIEGEL: What are you hearing from French people who are not directly involved in the strike? What do they say about it?

BEARDSLEY: Well, last week people who didn't even follow politics were annoyed because they couldn't get gas. But this week, the gas is back in the gas stations. We see a lot of violent TV footage of burning tires. But Robert, remember, most people aren't personally affected. But even so, many people say they think it's good that the union is standing its ground.

One man said there's pressure to make economic reforms that actually make people's lives worse just because other countries are doing it. And another said the world was in a capitalist folly and everyone's being pulled down to the bottom. Now today in the French Parliament, tempers were flaring.

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DOMINIQUE BUSSEREAU: (Speaking French).

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: That was a member of the opposition, Dominique Bussereau, accusing President Francois Hollande of allowing the country to be taken hostage by the CGT union and become the laughingstock of the world with this situation.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us about this change to the labor law that President Hollande favors and that has so angered the CGT, the big labor federation.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, Francois Hollande, from the very beginning, said he would not run for a second term unless he got unemployment down. And he hasn't done it. France has chronically high - 10 percent - unemployment. This is an attempt to make the labor code - the labor laws - more flexible so that companies can hire more, but also fire more.

Now the union says making it easier for companies to lay off workers is certainly no improvement to lives, and it will make peoples' jobs and lives more insecure. Now this union has been losing membership, also, for years.

And it's sort of taking advantage of the government's unpopularity and surfing on a wave of general discontent in France. And a lot of people told me it's not really about the law. It's about - what is the country's future? So this is a real showdown and a power struggle, and neither side wants to lose face.

SIEGEL: A showdown, a power struggle - how and when might this be resolved?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the clue was in a little telephone call over the weekend, say analysts. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who says he won't back down, called the head of the union - the CGT union - Philippe Martinez and they spoke. And now the CGT union is not demanding that the law be withdrawn, but changed. So people are saying the government can now tweak the law, the union can say they won and then the French can just get back to their soccer matches.

SIEGEL: Well, we see what the union has done and we heard what the opposition said in Parliament. Does Hollande's Socialist Party support him strongly in this policy?

BEARDSLEY: Hollande has managed to completely divide the Socialist Party. The left flank of the Socialist Party cannot stand their president. And this is really the first time that the street has been so against a leader from the left.

SIEGEL: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Burgundy, in the town of Semur-en-Auxois. Eleanor, thanks a lot.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.