How the world views France’s autumn of discontent

Over recent weeks, industrial action has brought France to a standstill

Workers protest in Paris on 27 October for higher pay and shorter working hours
Workers take to the streets in Paris
(Image credit: NurPhoto / Samuel Boivin via Getty images)

Here we go again, said Gilles-William Goldnadel in Le Figaro (Paris) – the familiar sight of France being held to ransom by the “extreme left”. Over recent weeks, industrial action has brought trains and buses to a stand­still, and even caused vital maintenance work on nuclear power plants to be delayed. More damaging still, however, have been the strikes at some of our largest fuel depots, which have led to fuel short­ages at almost a third of our petrol stations, and inconvenienced millions of ordinary citizens.

The disruption began when workers at TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil walked out to demand higher salaries in late September, said Ellen Francis in The Washington Post. But it has grown into a movement reflecting “broader discontent and worries” over soaring living costs, and was followed last week by a “nationwide strike” and clashes between protesters and riot police on the streets of Paris. The unrest, which echoes the 2018 “yellow vest” movement, is proving a major setback for President Macron.

There are two main trade union families in France, said Gilles Paris in Le Monde (Paris). The “reformists”, represented primarily by the trade union federation CFDT (which has more than 620,000 members), have already struck a deal with oil companies over pay. But the second group, the so-called “revolutionaries”, are more hardline and are continuing to strike.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

They’re spearheaded by the more radical trade union federation, CGT; by La France Insoumise, the populist left-wing party of former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and by the Communist Party. Surfing the wave of this unrest to boost his own party’s fortunes, Mélenchon has tried to revive the spirit of 1968, “the glory days of French social struggle”, by demanding nationwide strikes to force through big salary increases in the private and public sectors. And though the government has used the law to force “essential” workers back to work at some refineries, it still has much to lose if walkouts continue.

Macron’s position is made worse by voters denying his party a majority in June’s parliamentary elections, said Sylvain Pattieu in Libération (Paris). Already “weakened”, he now faces a wave of dissatisfaction about everything from soaring corp­orate profits to the climate crisis.

How very French this unrest is, said El País (Madrid). France has the lowest inflation rate of any in the EU (6.2%), and has spent more than the others “to reinforce the social cushion in the face of rising prices and the winter of forced energy savings”. Yet, still buying into the French “revolutionary myth”, its workers are treating the streets as “a central stage of political combat”. Now, as the economic outlook darkens and Europe grapples with war in Ukraine, the risk of social unrest spreading to other countries is all too real. “France is a warning.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.