The increasing cost of living and the government’s heavy-handed response to a strike at oil refineries is pushing people into the streets, and the discontent isn’t going away.

Martigues—Laurent has worked more than 20 years for the French Postal Service, but the mail carrier still earns just about €1,600 a month after Social Security contributions, a meager income that’s getting weaker and weaker with rising inflation.

“We can’t keep living like this,” he told me at a rally in this historically industrial city just outside of Marseille. Laurent joined one of more than 100 demonstrations on Tuesday in support of nationwide strikes across the public and private sectors. “The Postal Service benefits from its agents. It benefits from the fact that we know how to do our jobs, but we’re not compensated fairly.”

That’s why Laurent walked off the job along with four coworkers from the package delivery department in Martigues. With less seniority than Laurent, they earn as little as €1,200 a month. “With our salaries and the rising cost of living, we’re surviving,” Sophie told me. “That’s it.”

None of them are union members, but they answered the national call for strikes led by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), because they hope the pressure can usher in pay raises. “We’re taking advantage of the fact that there’s this movement to try and show up,” Laurent said. “Hopefully, we can create something and make things move.”

Evidently, many across France feel similarly. On Tuesday, tens of thousands of people walked off the job, from rail workers, dockworkers, and truck drivers to teachers at vocational schools and employees at the country’s vast network of nuclear power plants. The one-day strike was perhaps not as large as organizers had hoped for—according to unions, 300,000 people demonstrated across the country; according to the police, they numbered only 107,000—but labor leaders vow to hold more protests soon. Whatever comes next, unrest is already looming over the French political arena, revealing the weakness of recently reelected President Emmanuel Macron’s parliamentary majority at a pivotal moment in his second term of office.

The Spark

At the heart of France’s strike movement is inflation.

Compared to the eurozone average, the country’s annual rate of inflation of 5.6 percent is fairly low—largely thanks to government measures to cap rising energy costs. The state has fixed increases in the price of gas and electricity to 4 percent this year and plans to limit those hikes to 15 percent in 2023. It’s also subsidizing the distribution of gasoline and diesel to keep prices at the pump in check.

Much of this is the heritage of the Yellow Vests. The government is anxious to avoid provoking an unruly protest movement such as erupted over fuel costs in late 2018. But while state interventions have helped to lighten the burden of rising prices for consumers, something much more fundamental remains unchanged for many workers: Pay is stagnant across much of the French economy. According to France’s labor ministry, wages in the private sector have grown by only 3.5 percent over the past year.

“The companies of the CAC 40 [stock index] are making astronomical profits, and we’re getting crumbs,” said Jerome Paria, a 50-year-old ramp agent for Air France at the Marseille-Provence Airport, who went on strike Tuesday and attended the rally in Martigues. “It’s unacceptable.”

Last month, Air France announced that it would raise pay by 5 percent across the board, but Paria, also a union representative with the CGT, says it’s not enough given the rate of inflation. His employer is doing quite well, too. After receiving €10 billion in bailouts from the French and Dutch governments during the pandemic, parent company Air France–KLM recently reported its first quarterly profits since the end of 2019.

France’s national minimum wage is indexed to inflation and has risen to over €1,300 a month after Social Security contributions for full-time workers. While that increase has been welcomed by many, it’s also made workers who once earned comfortably above the national pay floor more conscious of their flat earnings.

“The minimum wage is increasing more than our company-wide increases,” said Thibault, who works for Carrefour Logistique in nearby Salon-de-Provence, loading freight trucks for the supermarket giant. “Starting pay rates are getting closer to pay rates at the next level, and if that continues, all of our salaries are going to be at the minimum wage level.”

“We need a dignified salary increase,” he said. “Everything’s more expensive—fuel, rent, food—everything’s going up, but our salaries aren’t going up at the same rate.”

While the rising cost of living is driving the discontent, the trigger for the national strikes came from a work stoppage at France’s oil refineries, and the government’s heavy-handed response.

In late September, refinery workers at ExxonMobil and Total launched strikes calling for pay hikes, disrupting six of the seven major refineries in metropolitan France. These were not mass walkouts. For the most part, they were strategically timed strikes led by supervisors who have immense leverage over production and distribution—and they were aimed at wringing generous wage concessions from the two employers at a time when the companies are swimming in profits. (Critics have lamented the power exerted by such a small group of workers, but unions maintain that the strikes are broadly supported by the rank and file.)

“[Before this], we’d always done small strikes on the inside. We’d always try to find solutions with management. It worked more or less,” Fabien Fargier, a chief operator, elected employee representative, and CGT strike leader at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Fos-sur-Mer told me outside the sprawling industrial zone where he’s worked for the past 24 years. “A three-week-long strike has never happened [here] before.”

As fuel supplies across France began suffering the consequences of the showdown between unions and the energy giants—about a quarter of gas stations nationwide still report shortages—the government opted to issue back-to-work orders, authorizing local police to order workers back to their jobs to ensure the flow of fuel from depots.

It’s an extremely aggressive step. Failure to comply with a requisition order carries the risk of six months in prison and a €10,000 fine. And while French law does permit the use of back-to-work orders in exceptional cases, they’d only been deployed once before at oil refineries—during strikes over pension reform in 2010 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. The following year, in a nonbinding recommendation, the International Labor Organization reaffirmed the ability of states to requisition workers in limited circumstances, but criticized the French government for not engaging in deeper negotiations before resorting to such measures.

In any case, the right to strike is also enshrined in the French Constitution, and Macron’s use of the measures has inflamed union members and sympathizers. “They want to requisition our comrades,” Paria, the Air France worker, told me in Martigues. “The right to strike is under attack!”

It’s why the most recent round of strikes were also endorsed by France’s third-largest confederation, Force Ouvrière, which joined the CGT as it slammed “an attack led by the government” on a “constitutional right.” The head of the largest labor confederation, the more conciliatory General Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), has criticized the use of back-to-work orders, but maintains that negotiations are preferable to strikes.

Beyond labor rights, the conflicts at the refineries moved the question of worker pay to the center of political debate. “I think we contributed to the start of a movement,” refinery worker Fabien Fargier said. “Now, there are others who getting into it.”

They’ve also reminded the public of the benefits of striking. Fargier and his coworkers at ExxonMobil abandoned their work stoppage after three weeks, with his local union section pointing to fatigue over the requisitions and media coverage over fuel shortages. But not before they helped deliver a 6.5 percent annual pay raise—the product of a deal signed between management and more conciliatory unions, including the CFDT, who represent a majority of workers at the firm, though not at the refineries. “We didn’t obtain what we wanted, but we got something,” he said. “We can hold our head high.”

For its part, Total has also made concessions. Last Friday, management signed an agreement with moderate unions ushering in a 7 percent pay hike. Strikers are still holding out at three refineries, calling for a raise of 10 percent. They point to the firm’s record profits, which have doubled over the first half of the year. Late last month, the fossil fuel giant announced a €2.62 billion dividend payment for investors.

A Volatile Political Landscape

The unrest is already having political repercussions.

Last week, Macron’s parliamentary coalition suffered an embarrassing defeat when one of its key partners supplied critical votes to help approve a tax on so-called “super dividends” aimed at large corporations like ExxonMobil and Total. Rather than the standard 30 percent levy on capital gains, the measure would impose a 35 percent tax on dividends if they mark a 20 percent increase above the most recent five-year average. Voted as an amendment to the 2023 budget, it signaled that parts of Macron’s coalition are willing to defy the government on economic policy.

Tensions like these are all the more significant because of the president’s fragile working majority. Unlike in his first term, Macron does not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly, only a “relative majority” requiring support from other parties to approve laws, typically the right-wing party Les Républicains. Parliamentary skirmishes this week further illustrated the weakness of this working majority. To approve the version of the budget it prefers—one without any unwanted amendments like the tax on “super dividends”—Macron’s government is poised to deploy a controversial constitutional maneuver, Article 49.3, which forces opponents to back a motion of no confidence against the government if they want to block the legislation in question. At the moment, opposition parties are unlikely to join forces to do so, a move that would force the resignation of the cabinet and could result in the president’s calling for new elections. (The Républicains, in particular, are reluctant to roll the dice on another round of elections.) Threats related to the government’s use of Article 49.3 are likely to loom over the national political landscape for the foreseeable future.

At any rate, the recent vote on super dividends also showed the influence of France’s united left coalition, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), which for months has been pushing for a broader tax on what it calls“super profits.” As issues like wages and corporate profits move to the center of the debate, the NUPES hopes to reap the rewards. Last Sunday, it held a long-planned march of its own in Paris against the rising cost of living and “climate inaction.”

“Ultimate responsibility lies with the government,” Aurélie Trouvé, an MP with La France Insoumise representing a district in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, told me. “During its law on purchasing power, the government did everything but raise salaries.… [There was] a refusal to raise the minimum wage, a refusal to hold a national conference on wages, a refusal to tax super profits. Now we’re seeing the result. The rich are doing well, and the rest of French people are struggling more and more.”

Trouvé and others in the NUPES are trying to go on the offensive by pointing to alternatives. “The best way to increase pay is by increasing the minimum wage. Then, there’s the possibility of indexing salaries to inflation, like in Belgium,” she said. “The third way of doing things, which we’ve asked for, is a broad general conference on wages—the major bosses sit at the table with workers’ representatives, at the behest of the state. That’s what they did in 1968.”

According to Trouvé, the absence of government action on wages will add fuel to the already volatile political climate. “We have an inflation that’s resulting in a generalized collapse of pay, which is why there’s growing anger. In my opinion, it’s going to continue to grow,” she said.

Risking the ire of unions and the left-wing opposition, Macron says he wants to move forward on his plan to hike the retirement age—picking up a reform that triggered mass strikes during late 2019 and 2020 before it was set aside in the early stages of the pandemic. It may not be the most politically savvy initiative at this moment, but Trouvé thinks the president believes it’s necessary to deliver savings to public coffers. “He’s ideologically persuaded,” Trouvé said. “There’s no doubt about the fact he’s going to want to absolutely pass it.… The only way to stop it is with an enormous mobilization in the street.”

The key question, as often in French politics today, is whether the more combative labor unions and left-wing parties can generate enough participation in strikes and protests beyond their core supporters.

As Tuesday demonstrated, tens of thousands respond to strike mobilizations even on short notice, but many others can’t afford to. French unions rarely have well-funded strike funds, which means strikes tend to translate into immediate reductions in pay. “Today, we would’ve hoped to make the whole post office walk out, but not everybody could do it,” Laurent told me in Martigues.

“It’s not easy to strike when you have a small salary,” his coworker Sophie said. “They’re holding us by the throat.”

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