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December 15, 2019

French businesses worry for bottom line as strike lands fresh blow


December 15, 2019

Paris: Already reeling from the fallout of rolling "yellow vest" protests, French businesses are again counting their losses as an eight-day-old strike over pension reforms eats into their Christmas earnings.

With public transport in Paris and national rail services at a near standstill since December 5, shoppers have been thin on the ground.

Hotels and restaurants are also feeling the pinch.

"We´ve had a cascade of cancellations, more and more of them," said Franck Delvau, co-president of the UMIH union of hotel operators, the sector´s largest.

The strike could be costing the economy as much as 400 million euros ($445 million) per day, the CPME confederation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which represents 99.9 percent of French companies told AFP.

Of 920 SME company bosses polled, said the CPME, 49 percent reported a drop in sales since last Thursday, compared with last year.

"Forty-two percent of bosses believe the combined impact of the ´yellow vests´ movement and the strike is placing their business in danger," the confederation said in a statement.

As the world´s most visited country with more than 89 million international arrivals in 2018, according to the World Tourism Organization, France´s economy relies heavily on tourism.

The sector had only just rebounded from the aftermath of a spate of jihadist attacks in 2015 and 2016 when simmering discontent over social inequality exploded last year into the "yellow vest" revolt.

The weekly demonstrations, several of which ended in rioting and looting, forced businesses in central Paris and other cities to remain shuttered over several consecutive weekends.

Now, the retail and hospitality sector are being squeezed again as France´s militant unions paralyse transport links in protest over a major overhaul of the pension system that would particularly affect public sector workers, including train drivers.

"If this action continues beyond this week, it would be catastrophic for our members, after another complicated year end last year", said Gontran Thuering of the National Council of Commercial Centres noted.

Shopping malls, he said, usually count on making double their average monthly sales in December -- a target they are likely to miss this year.

The first weekend of the strike was "catastrophic", according to the GNI-Synhorcat unions of hotels, cafes and restaurants.

"Paris was empty; the restaurants, the brasseries... even fast food outlets -- everyone was affected," with some achieving half their usual revenue, it said.

The UMIH hoteliers´ association said its members were similarly affected, with Paris hotels losing almost a third of their customers and restaurants as much as 50 percent.

Several business meetings, congresses and seminars in the City of Light were postponed.

The OECD grouping of developed and emerging economies issued an economic survey for France in April, in which it warned that "prolonged and heightened social protests would hurt private consumption and business investment as well as exports through weaker tourism."

It noted that the age at which most people in France retire was one of the lowest among OECD members, at a little over 60.

In recent days, thousands of visitors to Paris have had to rely on their ingenuity and patience to move about Paris.

With most metro lines out of service for days on end, trains connecting Paris and its suburbs slashed and inter-city connections severely hamstrung, many had no choice but to walk as public bikes and electric scooters were quickly rented out, and taxis charged a premium.

"We get around best we can, mainly on foot and sometimes by Uber," Guillermo Pulido from Colombia said at the foot of the fire-charred Notre-Dame cathedral which he was visiting with his wife and children amidst the cacophony of horns from cars and scooters jamming the surrounding streets.

"The perception of the strike from abroad is that France is both blocked up and violent, an image that is not new considering the ´yellow vests´ movement," said Jean-Pierre Mas, president of the Entreprises du Voyage body, which groups some 1,600 tour operators. "This is obviously not good for tourism, for visits and reservations for the future."