Strikes Across France Paralyze Economy

May 28, 2016
Originally published on May 28, 2016 5:36 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we go to France, which is in chaos because of a showdown between the French government and a union that does not want to accept revisions to labor laws that will soon take effect. Strikes have paralyzed several sectors of the economy, and French cities are full of protest marches. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been following the story, and she's with us now. Eleanor, hi, thanks for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: What's happening today?

BEARDSLEY: Well, today Prime Minister Manuel Valls met with the heads of some of these oil refineries that have been blocked by the strikers, and also they've walked off the job. France has had gas shortages. About 20 percent of the country's gas stations are completely dry, and we've seen lines all week at other gas stations. They're even limited to half-tanks many of the time. We've also seen dockers, truckers blocking roads and ports, and train workers have also walked off the job.

MARTIN: So what's at the root of this?

BEARDSLEY: Well, French president Francois Hollande is desperate to get down France's chronically high unemployment rate. It hovers around 10 percent. So he wants to make the labor laws more flexible. To be able to hire more easily you have to be able to fire more easily. So that's his plan. And three major unions are on board with it. But this hard-line union, the CGT - it has communist roots - it says no. So they want this law withdrawn, and they say they will not stop protesting until it is.

And polls have actually shown that a majority of the French agree that this is not a good law because making it easier to fire people is not a good thing. It just increases insecurity. But this whole issue seems have a life of its own now. The government says it will not fold. The unions say they will not stop. So I spoke with Philippe Fremeaux. He's the editor of an economic monthly magazine, and he says it's not really even about this law anymore. It's about people are just not happy with President Hollande.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILIPPE FREMEAUX: His political weight in the country is very low, and the problem is that the front of him, he has some unions who have political power that is very low as well. And so the two sides have interest to show their muscles, you know. To see - you think I'm weak, but no, I'm strong.

MARTIN: I'm wondering, where is public opinion on this? I mean, do you say a lot of people don't agree with the law, but do they support the unions and their strategy?

BEARDSLEY: They don't support the law, but the unions are getting very, very radical right now, and people seem to be getting angry. And I was out last night at a place where people rally in support of these strikers. And I spoke with this woman, Carole Benotte. She's 45 years old, unemployed, she has children, and she's angry. And here's what she told me.

CAROLE BENOTTE: I don't accept that the trade unions like CGT decide for the rest of France. I don't know why they decide to block the refinery and everything. It's like a dictatorship.

BEARDSLEY: So you see, a lot of French people just feeling angry that it's gotten to this point. Many people say it's not even about the law. It's about, why is a left-wing president at a point of contention like this with the union that's paralyzing the country? And people are getting worried because in about 10 days, France is hosting the 2016 Euro Soccer Cup. We're going to have dozens of soccer matches across the country in stadiums, and the prospect of no gas and no trains and chaos is a bit scary.

MARTIN: That's Eleanor Beardsley joining us from Burgundy. Eleanor, thanks much for joining us.

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