Why do the French strike so much?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 21 2010 3:45 PM

High-School Unions and X-Rated Protest Signs

Why do the French strike so much?

Students in a recent Paris protest. Click image to expand.
Students in a recent Paris protest

PARIS—The French capital is like a showroom for protest signs these days, as millions strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67. "Carla, we're like you, we're being fucked by the chief of state!" is one of my favorites. Other signs read "67? Why not 69? If we have to get fucked …" or "Take a good look at your Rolex, it's time to revolt." (The latter refers to Sarkozy's friend Jacques Séguéla's claim that "if you don't have a Rolex by the time you reach 50, you have clearly failed in life.") Others choose simplicity: "Fuck off, dumbass" (a bon mot the president shared with an angry farmer in 2008) or "Sarko, for you, retirement is in 2012" (the date of the next presidential election).

Tuesday saw the sixth national strike since May, and we've had many smaller protests in between. The anger shows no sign of abating. Three and a half million French citizens took to the streets on Tuesday, according to the CGT union; the police put the number at 1.1 million. The police and the unions never agree about crowd sizes—as the protest signs have noted. "Sixth protest, second according to the police" read one sign this week; another says, "Nicolas Sarkozy is 1 meter 20 centimeters tall according to unions, 1 m. 80 according to the police."

Striking workers have blockaded fuel reservoirs, leaving as many as one-third of the nation's gas stations dry, and the government has sent in the police to force three fuel depots to open, though several others are still blocked. Strikes are disrupting subways, buses, trains, and the boats that carry fuel into the port of Marseille. Now high-schoolers have joined the protests and are barring entry to schools around the country. (Nearly 400 high schools have been affected, according to officials; more than 1,000, according to high-school-union representatives. And, yes, in France, high-school students have unions.) As the high-schoolers prepare for a 10-day vacation, college students have stepped in to take their turn, blockading their universities. A dozen so far—but French college students go back to school at different dates throughout October and sometimes as late as November, compared with September for high-schoolers.

The youth protests are usually less well-organized than workers' demonstrations, where the union marshals have more experience. Casseurs—which literally translates as breakers but is often rendered as rioters in the Anglo-Saxon media—have broken shop windows and fought with the police, resulting in the arrest of 1,423 people over the course of the last week, according to the government.

It seems that we French have a reputation for always being on strike. In fact, comparative statistics on days lost to strikes among European countries between 1900 and 1970 show France around the average, says French historian Stéphane Sirot. Those statistics put Northern European countries at the top of the strike rankings, because that's where unions have most power. When Northern European unions call a national strike, millions of people drop their tools.

France does have a culture of strikes, but they tend to be short, local affairs that affect one company rather than vast national movements, even though those are the ones you hear most about. It's a matter of history: French citizens won the right to strike 20 years before they got the right to unionize, creating a culture of workplace power struggles.

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At the end of World War II, Sirot says the nations of northwest Europe learned to negotiate first, then resort to conflict if the talks were unsuccessful. But in France, the pattern was power struggle first, then—once everyone had shown their strength—negotiations could begin.

The best example of this process is May '68, the biggest social uprising in recent French history. It was resolved by the Grenelle Agreements, in which all the unions—even the most extreme—participated. This helped the country return to normal, albeit slowly.

The problem is, that negotiating system is now broken. It can only work if every player follows the same rules. Since 2003, when there was another wave of protests against an earlier attempt at pension reform (this time affecting only civil servants), the state's strategy has been to wait out the protests instead of trying to negotiate. This has weakened the unions. In the old days, both sides got something out of a strike; now it's a matter of one side winning and the other taking a fall. Since there's no other system in place, this change has disrupted the social contract.

The current round of strikes is about pension reform, but there's much more at stake. People are protesting the high unemployment rate, the economic crisis, and the general feeling that the current government is destroying the social contract. This time, the government can't say privileged civil servants are the only ones complaining.