Polished cutlery, glassware and candelabras glimmer on the shelves of Chrysalia, a silverware and fine gifts boutique on a side street in central Paris. With a Christmas discount of 20 per cent advertised in its window display, the small store looks primed for the festive shopping season. The only thing missing is customers.
“Sales are down by about half this December. It’s normally the best month of the year,” said Alexandre Akil, who runs the shop opened by his grandfather in 1954. “It’s a nightmare.”
With strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plan entering their third week, the daily disruption of the French capital’s transport networks is taking its toll on hotels, restaurants and shops of all sizes. Many foreign tourists are staying away. Commuters from the suburbs and visitors from the rest of France are struggling to reach the city centre.
It is a bitter pill to swallow for business owners who were repeatedly forced to pull down their shutters over the past 12 months during the “gilets jaunes” demonstrations that ruined Saturday shopping, with marches sometimes descending into violence and looting by a hard core of protesters.
At the Théâtre des Mathurins a few doors down from Mr Akil’s shop, staff said ticket reservations were down and performances sometimes only two-thirds full — at a time of year that usually attracts big audiences. “People say it’s really difficult to get home if a show ends at 11pm,” said one employee who declined to give her name.
The French revel in their revolutionary history and are generally tolerant of strikers and demonstrators — a recent Ifop opinion poll found that more than half of those surveyed either supported or sympathised with the latest strikes, even if two-thirds also backed the idea of reforming pensions. But some tempers are fraying and business organisations have begun to sound the alarm.
“It’s the second December in a row,” said Emmanuel Le Roch of Procos, which represents 300 retailers with 60,000 shops across France, including names such as Fnac-Darty and Häagen-Dazs. “The main phenomenon now is the transport strikes, so people think more about going home after work — and tourists don’t come.”
For Procos members, sales so far this month are down 9 per cent across France and have dropped 25-30 per cent in Paris compared with last year’s already difficult December. “Compared to 2017, we reckon Paris is down around 40 per cent,” said Mr Le Roch. There were big gilets jaunes marches in early December 2018, but there was enough of a pause last year for shoppers to return in force in the week before Christmas.
That may not happen this time if the powerful CGT and other trade unions carry out their threat to prolong the strikes into the new year.
Edouard Philippe, Mr Macron’s prime minister, has vowed to push ahead with the pension reform. He is negotiating with union leaders and employers this week to try to reach a compromise on the way it is implemented in the years ahead.
In the meantime, small businesses have pleaded for tax breaks from the government and warned that France’s attractiveness for investors will be damaged by the disruption.
TLF, which groups French road hauliers and logistics companies, said this week that rail and port strikes and picket lines at ports and depots were having a “catastrophic” impact. The Alliance du Commerce, representing clothing and footwear shops, said sales were down by an average 30 per cent in Paris and some other big cities in recent days.
Parisians have adapted quickly to the loss of rail, metro and bus services, dragging old bicycles out of their cellars, sharing cars to commute or walking to work and joking that Mr Macron’s political party La République en Marche (literally, the Republic on the March) is finally living up to its name.
Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Kapten are exceptionally busy, and BlaBlaCar, a carpooling platform, said it had seen record bookings of up to 100,000 per day this month.
Giuseppe, an Italian in his forties who manages a pizzeria in central Paris, has had to travel to work by car for more than an hour, instead of taking his usual 20-minute journey by train.
In the evenings, there are now about 50 to 60 diners at the pizzeria, instead of 100, as fewer people stop for food after Christmas shopping. The establishment was having to pay for cabs for some employees to get home, but Giuseppe does not resent the inconvenience. “Even us, we hope to get to retirement one day,” he said.
Mr Akil says he would never normally do a discounted sale promotion just before Christmas at his silverware retail and restoration store, but he counts as a blessing the fact that two automated driverless metro lines are still working, and he too tries to be stoical about the strikes. “It’s their right,” he said. “I don’t have any opinion, as long as they don’t smash things.”