• France edition
 
So why are the French always on strike?
Where does this French love for strikes come from and do they really deserve their reputation for downing tools? Photo: AFP

So why are the French always on strike?

Published: 18 Jun 2014 08:21 GMT+02:00
Updated: 19 Jun 2014 08:21 GMT+02:00

So are the French really the world’s biggest strikers?

Yes and no argues French historian Stéphane Sirot. “It’s part of the character of France to have these big social movements at a national level, that can last a long time, just like the rail workers' strike this week,” he says. These movements are highly visible, can cause major disruption and are covered widely by the media both at home and abroad, which only adds to France’s militant reputation, says Sirot, who specializes in strikes and the trade union movement.

And when the French do strike, they also protest, loudly. It's part of the long French tradition of taking to the streets, Sirot says. The protests can be violent, which only increases the media attention and fuels the reputation.

But when you look at the statistics of the number of days lost to strikes in each country over the last 100 years, Sirot says, then France is generally in the middle of the table. Other experts in the field also claim the number of days lost to strikes in France has decreased notably since the 1970s. Those kinds of  stats are often used to debunk the myth that the French spend their lives on strike, but others have doubted the accuracy of these figures which often put countries like Denmark and Norway at the top of those rankings.

French website Alternatives-économiques, claims they do not account for all public-sector strikes in France and many days lost to strike in the private sector are also not being accounted for. In reality, the magazine argues, France sees more strikes each year than other developed European countries including the UK, Germany and Sweden, and they have been on the rise in recent years.

Kurt Vandale from the European Trade Union Institute tells The Local that while Greece and Spain have topped the tables for most strike days in recent years, since 2009 France has been at the top of the rankings.

So, while the stats may not be conclusive, we can safely say the reputation is at least merited.

So why are the French up for going on strike so much?

The main reason seems to focus around the historic relationship between bosses and employees. The historian Sirot says that while in other northern European countries, strikes tend to follow failed negotiations, In France, strike action normally precedes negotiations or runs alongside them.

So some unions will flex their muscles, call a strike, hold a public protest and then the talks can begin. More often than not the government will hold firm and refuse to negotiate while the strike is on, as seen in this week’s rail walk-out.

It's also worth noting that the French general accept strikes as a necessary evil to improve workers' rights. Whereas in the UK strikers are often blasted by an unsympathetic general public, in France the general feeling is that it is for the greater good. Although tempers do boil over sometimes as the photo below suggests.

Are the strikes all down to the trade unions then?

Here’s an interesting stat from Sirot: France is the country with the highest number of trade unions but the lowest percentage of union membership. In France the number of workers in unions stands at around eight percent whereas the average in the rest of Europe is around 25 percent.

But just because they are not in a union does not mean they are less likely to strike. Sirot points out that French workers won the right to strike in 1864, 20 years before they were allowed to unionize, which engineered a culture of conflict.

But the trade unions do play a role. Competition between them can be fierce. The more radical unions like the CGT, (which have much more of a militant background than German or Scandinavian trade unions) will want to flex their muscles and try to win support from frustrated workers so they will be more eager to call a strike.

Guy Groux, head of research at French think tank CNRS also points out in an interview with Slate magazine, that the lack of collective bargaining or negotiation that exists in other countries but not in France is another reason why there may be more strikes in France.

This week’s rail workers' walk-out is a good example. While two out of the big four unions signed a deal with the government, the CGT and Sud-Rail refused and so called on workers to walk out, many of whom followed.

Another difference Kurt Vandale points out is that in other countries once negotiations take place and are signed off then unions cannot call a strike until the next round of talks.

Is the culture of striking in France changing?

It was until this week’s rail strike, Sirot says. The rolling 24-hour strike – that has brought misery for rail commuters for nine days was considered a thing of the past in France. In recent years, strike action has taken place on specific days for a 24-hour period and perhaps repeated at regular intervals. 

How do all these strikes affect France’s standing abroad?

The reputation of France as being a nation of strikers can be costly when it comes to business and foreign investors, Sirot says. "But we need to make clear to them that it is mainly just the public sector which is affected. If they look at the private sector, they will see that there’s very little conflict," he says. Although Sirot admits that when there is a dispute in the private sector it can be much more militant.

So when will this rail strike end then?

“It’s hard to say. It’s worrying that there doesn’t appear to be an easy exit,” Sirot says.

"The government is refusing to negotiate. Even if the workers eventually go back to work we could see further protests in the future, when the reform becomes law."  

Don't miss stories about France, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Why topless French women are covering up
Why going topless on French beaches is no longer de rigueur. Photo: Shutterstock

Why topless French women are covering up

Topless sunbathers were once synonymous with French beaches, but with the trend apparently no longer de rigeur, The Local looks at why French women no longer feel the need, or feel comfortable taking their tops off on the beaches. READ  

Uproar over sale of 'jihadist book' in France
'Islamist propaganda' sold in mainstream French stores has sparked controversy. Photo: Screengran/Amazon

Uproar over sale of 'jihadist book' in France

An apparent nondescript book called 'The Way of the Muslim', which is on sale in 1,000 stores across France, contains incitement to holy war and encourages killing “heretics” leading to uproar and calls for the text to be pulled. READ  

France hands over 'Jewish museum shooter'
Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect in the Jewish museum shooting in Belgium has been handed over to authorities in Brussels. Photo: AFP

France hands over 'Jewish museum shooter'

French police handed over Mehdi Nemmouche to their counterparts in Brussels on Tuesday. Nemmouche is suspected of shooting dead four people at a Jewish museum in the Belgian capital in May. READ  

France set to pull its nationals out of Libya
Libyan security services and civilians gather across the street after a car bomb attack on the French embassy in Tripoli, Libya on April 23rd, 2013. Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP

France set to pull its nationals out of Libya

Amid an increasingly dangerous environment in Libya, France has decided to evacuate its nationals for their safety, according to reports on Tuesday. France's decision comes amid warnings and similar evacuations of other foreigners from the strife-torn North African nation. READ  

Nibbling rats blamed for French rail crash
The rear of a TGV train after it was hit by a regional TER train in south western France on Thursday. Photo: Mehdi Fedouach/AFP

Nibbling rats blamed for French rail crash

Rats nibbling at signalling cables led to a crash between two passenger trains that injured 40 people in south-west France earlier this month, a new report has announced. And signal failure is not the only problem being blamed on rats this week. READ  

Eurostar to start London-Marseille direct train
Eurostar is going to start direct train service from London to Marseilles. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Eurostar to start London-Marseille direct train

Getting from London to France's sunny Mediterranean coast is about to get a lot easier because Eurostar has announced it'll start direct service to Marseille next year. READ  

No new criminal probe against Sarkozy
Ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the subject of yet another criminal probe. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP

No new criminal probe against Sarkozy

Media reports on Tuesday claimed yet another criminal investigation had been launched against ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, surrounding funding for 2007 presidential campaign, but the newspaper that first published the story has since admitted it's not true. READ  

EU to impose new sanctions on Russia
EU and the US are to impose new sanctions on Russia after their leaders agreed Moscow had done nothing to decrease tensions in the Ukraine. Photo: AFP

EU to impose new sanctions on Russia

France and its fellow EU powers along with the US agreed on the need to impose new sanctions on Russia over its presumed role in Ukraine's insurgency, the French presidency said on Monday. The sanctions should be finalised on Tuesday and will come into force shortly. READ  

Peach wars: French fury over Spanish dumping
French fruit growers unload a truck of Spanish peaches onto the road as the "peach war" between the two countries heats up. Photo: Raymond Roig/AFP

Peach wars: French fury over Spanish dumping

France has gone on the offensive in what is starting to look like an increasngly bitter "peach war" against Spain after authorities stepped up the number of checks on trucks carrying fruit across the border. READ  

French envoy's New York home search scuppered
Neighbours in a swanky New York apartment block have scuppered the hopes of France's ambassador to land a new home. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

French envoy's New York home search scuppered

France's ambassador to the United Nations is struggling to find a new home in New York after his attempts to buy a palatial 14-room apartment ran into trouble with prospective neighbours, who were concerned about the number of parties he would have. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Travel
Reckless or adventurous? US dad takes his two children up Mont Blanc
National
From manure to money: Ten bizarre facts about the French Parliament
Culture
Tourists picnic with rats in Louvre gardens
International
Is France really Europe's biggest public spenders?
National
Could your job in France soon be done by a robot?
National
Why you should think twice about feeding stray cats in France
National
And the new redrawn map of France will look like...?
Politics
Is French President François Hollande about to tie the knot?
International
Want a long-term visa? You may soon have to take a French test
International
Votes for foreigners: 'France would be giving up its sovereignty'
National
VIDEO: Stuntman jumps onto a moving Paris metro... and survives
Gallery
Forget 'faire l'amour', here's 15 top French expressions for making love
National
Report - 'Anti-Semitic' riots in France: 'We may leave for Israel'
National
Paris Plages: Here's 10 reasons to head down to the city beach
International
'Mont Blanc is like Disneyland. It's time to end the free-for-all'
Travel
Fancy climbing Mont Blanc? Here's 10 reasons to think twice about it
Gallery
Looking for a weird museum in Paris? Here's 10 that are worth a visit
National
Clear your head: Eight tips for buying wine in a French supermarket
National
'Don't blame the labour market for France's unemployment woes!'
National
Job applicants in France: Be prepared to send in an anonymous CV
Sport
'Bouligans' to booze bans: Ten things you need to know about pétanque
Gallery
Driving in France: How to stay out of trouble on the roads
Travel
Ten essential free phone apps for a visit to Paris
Sponsored Article
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se