French energy workers cut power to 30,000 in pensions protest

Kim Willsher in Paris
Photograph: François Mori/AP

In a change of tactics in the bitter dispute over pension reform in France, hardline union leaders carried out wildcat actions on Tuesday, cutting power supplies and plunging tens of thousands of people into darkness.

Just 24 hours after public transport drivers returned to work after six weeks of strikes and disruption, militant union federations showed their determination to force the government to back down over its proposed law.

French energy workers cut electricity supplies to a swathe of the suburbs south of Paris, including to Orly airport and the city’s fresh food market, as they continued to protest against pension reforms. Between 30-35,000 people were reported to have been affected.

Members of the hardline CGT union’s branches said the action was targeted to “have an impact on the economy and above all make ourselves heard”.

Franck Jouanno, a CGT-Énergie representative, told French media: “It’s not the end of the world to have a power cut. In general it doesn’t last more than a morning.”

Orly, which has its own generators, was unaffected by the early morning power outages, but the airport’s Orlyval automated train network was hit. A spokesperson for Rungis International Market said emergency power kicked in when the power outage began and there was no disruption to trade.

Julien Denormondie, a city and housing minister, described the action as “scandalous and irresponsible”.

“Can you imagine, not only the inconvenience, but that people were put at risk? It’s scandalous, it’s irresponsible and it destroys dialogue [between parties],” Denormandie said.

The power cuts affected several suburban towns from 6am.

CGT members also cut electricity at the Paris headquarters of the moderate CFDT, France’s biggest union, which has voted to halt strikes and protests after the government made concessions in the pension reforms. Its decision has infuriated members of the CGT who want proposed changes to pensions entirely withdrawn and has pledged to continue industrial action.

CGT militants forced their way into the CFTD offices on Friday, where they were accused of “verbally and physically attacking” union staff.

CGT-Énergie admitted it was responsible for the power cuts. Union officials said they had cut the electricity to the Rungis, the wholesale fresh food market, and to Orly airport, plunging them “into darkness” for between 90 minutes and two hours.

“Right now all we’re hearing about in the media are the actions of the RATP [Paris transport company]) and SNCF [national rail network],” Jouanno said.

Most striking public transport staff who had been engaged in six weeks of protests and industrial action since early December – against plans by Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government to create a single points-based national pension scheme to replace the 42 existing schemes – returned to work on Monday.

The industrial action brought the French capital to a standstill and disrupted train and other public services in the rest of France. Other professions, including lawyers, teachers and doctors, joined the protests.

On Saturday, the CFDT said its members at RATP would be returning to work to “draw breath” and to consider alternative forms of industrial action. The CGT, the country’s oldest and most powerful union, has accused the CFDT of selling out to the government.

This week is crucial to the government and union opposition in the pension reform dispute. The pension reforms, a key element of Macron’s successful 2017 election campaign, will be presented to the council of ministers on Friday.