How tech took the bite out of France’s rail strikes

Man with fist raised laughing and holding a flag, one of hundreds of protesters against a French government project to change the status of the railroad workersImage copyrightEPA
Image caption Protesters have regularly taken to the streets across France since the strikes began at the start of April

Twice in recent weeks the BBC in Paris has arranged to film “commuter hell” during France’s recurrent rail strikes. Twice we have been confounded.

Our first subject phoned the evening before to say that her university exam – the one for which she had been planning to get up at crack of dawn – had been pushed back till lunchtime. So there was no need to battle her way through the morning rush hour.

Then another young woman, from the outer Paris suburbs, said that on consulting the website of French rail company SNCF it appeared that one in two trains would in fact be running, so she doubted the situation would be particularly serious or “visual”.

How tech took the bite out of France’s rail strikes
How tech took the bite out of France’s rail strikes

She said later it was just as well we had not gone to film the “chaos”. There had been less discomfort on that strike day than on previous normal ones.

Disruption but no mayhem

There are many whose lives are seriously inconvenienced by the rail workers’ strikes, now into their seventh week.

Workers are fighting the opening up of state railways to competition and the phasing out of generous contracts that include early retirement and automatic pay rises. The aim is to open up the state railways to competition from 2023, in line with EU requirements. SNCF has €46.6bn ($57.5bn; £40bn) of debt.

Worst off are people with fixed working hours and low wages – shop-staff or nurses – who for financial reasons have made their homes well away from Paris, and who have no choice but to fight their way in for the seven o’clock start.

But as the dispute drags towards its third month, what is perhaps more noteworthy is what is not happening.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption At the start of April, there was chaos on the railways but the situation has changed

There are not the familiar scenes of passenger mayhem; there are not the warnings from business of collapsing profits; there are none of the “France grinds to a halt” genre of newspaper headlines.

In fact the strikes, which take place two days out of every five, are now consigned to the inside pages. They have been internalised. People are coping.

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The comparison with big French rail strikes from the past is unavoidable, and leads to the obvious question.

What is different?

The answer is: information.

The mass rollout of personalised computing and mobiles in the last 10 or 15 years has totally changed the dynamic of what could otherwise have been a crippling economic blow.

First of all, the SNCF, via its website, is now able to give out detailed and in general accurate predictions of which trains will be running and when.

Anyone liable to be affected by the strike has developed the reflex of consulting the SNCF app on their phone, and changing plans accordingly.

In this the state rail company has been helped by the law, and by the unions. The law requires strikers to declare themselves two days in advance, which gives the SNCF time to prepare. And the unions, for reasons of their own, announced from the start the full three-month schedule of stoppages.

Image copyrightSNCF
Image caption SNCF has detailed information about each strike and how many trains it plans to run

This has given companies and their staff all the warning they need to arrange their affairs around days when the trains are running normally.

The free flow of information between people also means that plans can be changed right to the last minute through their smartphones. Meetings (or exams) can be reorganised for later in the day, simply by a group email.

In the past, 20 extra people would have crammed on to the only train from Sartrouville, because they would have been worried about missing the nine o’clock training session at La Défense. Now they can all be told it has been held back until the afternoon.

Or they can work from home.

So-called télétravail (home-working) is already being encouraged by the French government, and the strike is an added incentive.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Train and carpooling apps have helped travellers keep up to date with the latest strike information

According to Benedicte Ravache, who heads the National Association of Human Resources Directors: “A lot of big companies already have home-working agreements with staff, and others are considering them. The strike may be a chance for them to try it out.”

Social networking and the gig economy have also hastened the development of carpooling – commercial or voluntary – which is another means by which people have avoided the worst effects of the strike.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the industrial action, what is undeniable is that the social and working context this strike is very different from what has gone before.

A well-followed rail stoppage may not have entirely lost its power to inconvenience, but it is not the force that it was.

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