Luxembourgh Times

French strike turns up heat on Macron over corporate profits

Unions stage walkout on Tuesday, seeking further financial aid to assist workers through cost-of-living crisis

People protest in the western city of Bordeaux on Tuesday

People protest in the western city of Bordeaux on Tuesday © Photo credit: AFP

Source: Bloomberg

French rail, energy and other key workers are striking on Tuesday to demand a bigger share of corporate profits through higher wages, raising pressure on President Emmanuel Macron to take further steps to ease the pain of surging inflation.

Crowds started gathering for marches in major cities, while commuters faced travel disruption on regional trains, with around half circulating. International traffic was mostly unaffected, though four Eurostar services between Paris and London were cancelled.

The general walkout comes on the back of weeks-long blockades at refineries and fuel depots that are still causing shortages at more than a quarter of the country’s filling stations and as many French people prepare to set off for the school vacation starting this weekend.

The eight unions and student organisations that called for the strike oppose the government’s decision to force some employees at sites owned by oil majors TotalEnergies SE and ExxonMobil Corp. to get gas to motorists again. The hardline CGT has also urged port workers to hold stoppages.

Tuesday’s walkouts add to a list of challenges for Macron, who lost his absolute majority in the lower house of parliament in June elections and whose government looks set to struggle to win enough backing to push through its budget bill for next year, forcing it to resort to a controversial fast-track decree process.

Inflation in excess of 6% and record profits at oil companies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have driven support for industrial action amid increased economic anxiety, with a poll released on Sunday by Ifop for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper showing 82% of those surveyed thought Macron wasn’t doing enough to tackle soaring consumer prices.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez is demanding a €300 rise in the gross monthly minimum wage to €2,000.

‘Concern and anger’

The state has spent more than €100 billion on measures to shield households and businesses from the energy crisis, and early moves to cap electricity and gas prices before the war in Ukraine have helped keep the country’s inflation rate below that in neighbouring European countries.

Yet the government has warned its largess won’t last forever, with a general fuel discount due to end at the start of next year, and the limit on regulated energy price hikes to increase to as much as 15%.

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing pressure to introduce further measures to help struggling households

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing pressure to introduce further measures to help struggling households © Photo credit: AFP

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank has raised interest rates twice, with more tightening set to come, putting pressure on borrowing costs.

“There is a real atmosphere of concern and anger because of the decline of purchasing power, and workers from all sectors want salary increases,” according to political historian Jean Garrigues. Still, “we’re not facing an imminent threat of social explosion” as many private sector workers “can’t afford to go on strike.”

A poll published by Elabe for BFM TV showed Tuesday’s walkout hasn’t convinced a majority of French people, with 39% or those surveyed supporting or sympathising with it and 49% against. Opposition to the CGT-led refinery strikes is also growing, up 8 points to 48%, while two-fifths remain in favor.

France’s biggest private-sector union, the CFDT, which last week accepted TotalEnergies’ offer of a 7% wage increase for staff, has chosen not to take part, arguing that large protests are ineffective and instead favouring pressure company by company.

“Claiming that industrial action to achieve wage increases consists of big, interprofessional demonstrations, I’m telling you workers don’t believe it,” CFDT head Laurent Berger told Public Sénat television.

For the CGT and other unions, and some left-wing politicians, Tuesday will serve as a test of whether then can convince more people to join the movement, with the risk for Macron that discontent spreads to other sectors. The Elabe poll showed one-third of those interviewed were ready to join strikes or protests over spending power in the coming weeks.

Stoking tensions

Parliamentary debates this week about the budget bill may add to tensions. The National Assembly, including some of Macron’s supporters, approved amendments that the government has deemed anti-business but that reflect growing pressure to ask companies to contribute more.

In a country where more than two-thirds of workers drive to work, being able to fill up is also key.

In 2018, Macron’s presidency was roiled by the Yellow Vest protests, which were sparked by a tax hike on fuel and morphed into broader anger around economic equality and a rejection of his governing style.

A few months later, massive demonstrations against his plan to reform pensions disrupted transport and public services, until it was suspended during the Covid pandemic.

Macron now wants to pass the unpopular reform this winter, raising the possibility of further protests ahead.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.