PARIS — As French President Emmanuel Macron spends a few days in Washington, D.C., on the first official state visit of the Trump administration, he’s battling a spring of discontent back home.
On Monday night, Macron had a private dinner at Mount Vernon with President Trump and First Lady Melania, which will be followed by a state dinner on Tuesday and a speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Meanwhile, in France, railway workers to garbage collectors continue to protest sweeping labor reforms he is trying to implement.
But the nation’s retailers, accustomed to a challenging environment, appear to be taking all the disruption in stride.
“We don’t have the figures yet, but what I can tell you is that the strikes are having less of an impact today than in past years,” said Sébastien Allo, director of research at the National Council of Shopping Centers of France.
A series of walkouts and protests has erupted across France in recent weeks, led by unions angry with the broad overhaul planned by Macron in transportation, but also spilling into other sectors to include hospital workers, airline pilots, civil servants, students and even cheese artisans.
The protests have hit just as France is emerging from a prolonged tourism slump in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks, and after women’s ready-to-wear sales posted their first rise in almost a decade, with a 1.2 percent gain in 2017.
Meanwhile, high-street retailers are facing growing competition from online sellers. The country’s largest e-commerce sites are introducing a local Black Friday-style event this spring.
Carrying a bilingual title, Les French Days, the promotional event, will take place from April 27 to May 1, and includes the electronics and home appliance chain Fnac Darty; La Redoute, the catalogue business recently bought by Galeries Lafayette; Rue du Commerce, and Showroomprivé.
Add to that tough weather conditions at the outset of the year, when a cold snap kept shoppers from venturing out to shop.
“A first quarter to forget quickly: after a mediocre sales season and two months of meteorological disruptions, conditions were not favorable,” Procos, an association of specialized retailers including home improvement chains and toy stores, said in its March report. The association added it hopes that transport strikes will not last, noting they could weigh on mall traffic.
Despite this, observers see a more limited impact from the strikes in France, even though the rail protest is set to last through June — something of a record, even for a country famous for its work stoppages.
Factors muting the business declines are diverse, including a more adaptable workforce, with people able to work from home more easily; a recent push from the public and private sector to improve the country’s image among tourists, and less support from the French public for strikers than for previous social movements.
In this climate, it seems, the nation’s shopkeepers are more preoccupied with the weather.
“Honestly, no impact for us,” said a spokeswoman for Galeries Lafayette, when questioned about the effect of the strikes. The department store group has reduced its reliance on business from the sluggish French market by increasingly tapping into tourist flows.
Nevertheless, tourism-related activities are among those expected to be most affected as travelers cancel trips to avoid dealing with disruptions of service at the country’s railway operator SNCF and carrier Air France.
“For a long time, France has had an image of having lots of strikes in the railway sector. It’s not new: SNCF strikes are a chronic illness, not an acute illness…so will this worsen the country’s image? It’s not certain,” said Frédéric Pierret, a longtime tourism official in France and at the United Nations, who recently took over the French publication La Gazette Officielle du Tourisme.
Pierret warned that seasonal jobs are likely to be the most affected by the strikes, and cited figures from the French hotel association Union des Métiers et des Industries de l’Hôtellerie, which estimated a decline of around 10 to 15 percent in reservations since the onset of the strikes.
But executives at hotel group Accor, which counts France as its largest market and has chains covering a range of prices, said they have seen no effect from the strikes, neither in occupancy rates nor in the number of cancellations.
France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, earlier this month predicted a limited impact of the disruptions on France’s economic growth. Tourist numbers are affected, but it’s too early to measure to what extent, the minister said.
One of the world’s top travel destinations, the country recognizes the importance of the tourism sector and worked hard to bolster its standing with international travelers spooked by the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and the July 14 attack in Nice the following year.
Alarmed by the drop in visitors, the government moved quickly to reverse the trend, injecting 10.5 million euros into promoting the country’s image overseas.
The luxury trade association Comité Colbert also got involved, drawing up a list of high-end clients from around the world and inviting them to a series of exclusive tours, meals made by Michelin-starred chefs and even dinner at the foreign minister’s residence in 2016. The idea was to create unforgettable experiences for their guests, who would spread the word when they returned home.
The country’s tourism ministry targets 100 million annual visitors in 2020; France drew a record of nearly 89 million last year.
The approaching 50th anniversary of the country’s May 1968 strikes has prompted comparisons between the disruptions and the student movement that changed the country by upending societal norms.
Students at Sciences Po Paris this month unfurled protest signs out the windows of the venerable institution as they occupied the site — criticizing a new entrance system for the school as elitist. Some of the messages were addressed directly to Macron, who studied there. “Your school is blocked, Macron!” read one sign.
But beyond protest signs decorating the streets, similarities are limited, explain observers, who cite a lack of support from the broader public as a key reason.
“This strike is one of the social movements perceived as among the least legitimate among all those we have covered in 20 years,” said Frédéric Dabi, who heads the polling firm IFOP.
A week into the strikes, Macron scored higher in the polls than his two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, at the same point in their mandates. His approval rating stood at 40 percent, versus 27 and 37 percent, respectively, for Hollande and Sarkozy, according to a Kantar Sofres-OnePoint poll for Le Figaro Magazine.
For the month of April, a poll led by BVA Group showed 43 percent of people surveyed had a good opinion of Macron, up from 40 percent in March.
“Traditionally, this type of strike wears away at the government and the government is held responsible and now this is really new, and something that surprises me: the longer the strikes last, the more the government is supported,” noted Pierret.
Also reducing the impact of the strike, people are able to keep informed about the latest transport disruptions through applications on their phones and plan accordingly. The train strikes are scheduled to take place two days a week until June.
“People are anticipating, organizing themselves with ride sharing, remote working, and so on. Working remotely didn’t exist several years ago, so there has been less of an impact at this level,” said Allo.
In his view, the weather is a more important factor affecting retail business.
“Ready-to-wear is above all dependent on the climate. The arrival of an early summer is very good news because the summer clothing that is currently for sale will do well, the opposite of last October’s heat wave when boutiques were carrying ready-to-wear for winter,” said Allo, referring to a wave of unusually warm weather in the country.
“We have increased temperatures that in the end have a much more significant impact than the strikes, especially when the strikes last two days — people manage to do their shopping before or after,” he concluded.