Labour unrest deals heavy blow to tourism in Paris

Industry issues warning as more strikes, protests loom over planned labour reforms

PARIS • Already suffering from the impact of last year's terror attacks, tourism in Paris faces a fresh challenge from a recent wave of violent strikes and protests, the tourist industry warned yesterday.

While the atmosphere in the French capital had returned to normal in recent months, an outburst of social unrest over controversial labour reforms has once again put doubts in tourists' minds. Three months of student and union-led protests have descended into violent clashes between demonstrators and police around the country.

"The scenes of guerilla-type action in the middle of Paris, beamed around the world, reinforce the feeling of fear and misunderstanding" among potential visitors still anxious after the November terror attacks which killed 130 people, the city's tourist board said.

"There is still time to save the tourist season by putting an end to these blockades that are being shown the world over," Mr Frederic Valletoux, the head of the Paris tourist board, said. "It's the entire tourism and leisure network that is penalised. The challenge for employees is immense because 500,000 of them depend on the sector in the Paris region," he added.

Hotel bookings by Japanese visitors were down 56 per cent in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period in 2015, while bookings by Russian tourists were down by 35 per cent, the city's tourist board said.

Chinese tourists were a major driver of growth last year - reaching a new record of 1.2 million - but their numbers dropped by 13.9 per cent.

France is expecting severe disruption to train and plane travel less than two weeks before the Euro 2016 football championship kick off on June 10, as unions called fresh strikes in their battle to have the labour reforms scrapped.

After failing to paralyse the country with blockades of refineries and fuel depots last week, the hardline CGT union has called for strikes on the national rail network today, and on the Paris Metro from Thursday.

President Francois Hollande and the Socialist government remain firm against CGT's demand that the planned reforms be withdrawn.

But after weeks of trading insults, CGT leader Philippe Martinez has revealed that Prime Minister Manuel Valls had called him to discuss the bitter standoff. Mr Martinez refused to reveal what they discussed in last Saturday's call, but told BFMTV: "The fact that he deigns to call the spokesman of France's biggest union rather than denigrate him is a good sign."

The union leader insisted he had been ready to negotiate "from the start", but stressed that the reform must be withdrawn first.

Air travellers, too, are set to face more cancellations and delays. Pilots at Air France have voted in favour of strike action over pay conditions, the head of the SNPL union said yesterday. The vote approved the principle of a lengthy strike, but no date was decided, said SNPL chief Philippe Evain.

The measures at the heart of the dispute are aimed at injecting more flexibility into France's famously- rigid labour market by making it easier to hire and fire employees.

Companies would also be able to negotiate terms and conditions with their workers rather than be bound by industry-wide agreements. But the unions say the moves will erode job security and fail to bring down unemployment, which is stuck at just under 10 per cent.

The conflict comes a year before presidential elections in which Mr Hollande is considering seeking a second term despite popularity ratings that are among the lowest for a post-war French leader.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Labour unrest deals heavy blow to tourism in Paris'. Print Edition | Subscribe