Holiday blues: French strikes hit Christmas shopping season

A striking train worker holds a box to collect -funds for striking workers in front of riot police officers outside the the Gare de Lyon train station, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019 in Paris. A wildcat protest comes on Day 19 of nationwide strike over the government's plans to raise the retirement age to 64. The union-led protest Monday led to a standoff with riot police that spilled onto the streets around the historic Gare de Lyon train station. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
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Last year, it was the yellow vest protests. This year, it’s the strikes that have crippled Paris. The Christmas holidays aren’t proving to be a lucrative – or indeed merry – time for boutiques in the capital.

Or, for that matter, oyster vendors. Or hotels, or cafes.

Decorative lights still shimmer along the French capital’s glamorous avenues and illuminate its breathtaking monuments, but that’s not enough to bring back the business that retailers have lost since train drivers and others went on strike Dec. 5.

Monday marked Day 19 of the strikes over President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to redesign the national pension system, which unions see as a threat to the French welfare system and way of life.

A wildcat protest by union activists Monday disrupted traffic on one of only two Paris subway lines that’s been functioning normally — and prevented shoppers from reaching the shopping mecca along the Champs-Elysees.

Those driving to the capital to shop sometimes face hours of traffic, and battles or long waits for scarce parking spots.

“It’s very difficult. I usually go the Galeries Lafayette several times, walk through Paris to buy things, but this time I gave that up,” said Marie Lesage, a 32-year-old Parisian.

So she decided to shop online or in little boutiques close to work.

Overall estimates of retail losses vary, but they’re hitting across the board. Toy stores, florists and foie gras sellers. Train station cafes, brasseries or burger shops.

The Paris government is offering 2.5 million euros in tax breaks to city merchants, and the central government is offering to delay 400 million euros in tax payments until next year. But the Paris region Chamber of Commerce says that’s not enough.

The chamber estimates retail sales in central Paris are down 30% from last year. Galeries Lafayette alone registered a 50% drop in sales the first day of the strike, it said.

Pascal Bouaziz, owner of a high-end electronics shop in the tony 8th district of Paris, estimates sales are down a third from a normal December.

“We are in a business neighborhood, so people finish work … and usually during the holiday season they come in, they buy their products and they calmly return home. But now they’re scared to miss their train, so at 5 p.m. they’re running to get home,” he told The Associated Press. “We understand them. Because of this, we have fewer customers than usual.”

Some shops struggle to stay open because their own employees can’t get to work.

Online deliveries are sometimes delayed by tangled traffic – a problem that’s making last-minute shoppers nervous the day before Christmas Eve, when French families often exchange gifts.

Many retailers say they’re being punished for the second year in a row. In November 2018, the yellow vest movement exploded, and violent protests and police crackdowns every Saturday forced many stores to shutter every Saturday for weeks on end at the height of the holiday season.

Paris police have ordered stores and cafes to close along the route of marches held around the capital in recent weeks, to diminish the risk of damage.

And it’s not over yet: Union leaders plan new protests for Jan. 9, and hope to keep up the strike through the holidays.

They’re protesting government plans to raise the retirement age to 64 and take away special privileges for train workers. Macron argues that his reform proposals will make the expensive pension system more financially sustainable, and fairer.

For an economy that’s struggling to rev up growth, the strikes are a particular concern, particularly if they run into months.

The French central bank recently lowered its growth forecast for next year from 1.3% to 1.1%. The finance ministry insists that’s because of trade tensions with the U.S. and China, and that the strikes shouldn’t have lasting impact.

But the government is watching the economic effect of the strikes closely. The top trade and consumer affairs official is meeting every few days with merchants’ groups.

Meanwhile, with trains standing still for weeks on end, a lucky few Paris retailers are seeing business boom : bike shops.