• France's news in English
 
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: 07 Apr 2015 15:01 GMT+02:00
Updated: 07 Apr 2015 15:01 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,” 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, it 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 public 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 8 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.

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.

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.

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

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Writers boycott Charlie Hebdo gala in New York
People visit a makeshift memorial near the headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Writers boycott Charlie Hebdo gala in New York

Six prominent novelists have withdrawn from a New York literary gala to protest against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being honored with a freedom of expression award. READ  

Top French civil servant and her €40k taxi bills
French media exec and her €40,000 taxi bills. Photo: Shutterstock.

Top French civil servant and her €40k taxi bills

A top French civil servant is the latest public official to come under fire in France for wasting tax payers' money after it was revealed she racked up an eye-watering €40,000 ($43,000) worth of taxi bills in just 10 months. That's despite the fact she also had her own chauffeur driven company car. READ  

Ryanair's O'Leary blasts 'protectionist' France
Last year the airline was ordered to pay €8.1 million ($10.3 million) in damages along with €200,000 in fines for breaching French labour laws. Photo: Paolo Margari/Flickr

Ryanair's O'Leary blasts 'protectionist' France

Ryanair’s outspoken CEO Michael O'Leary has slammed the French government for being “protectionist” and said his airline shouldn't have to pay payroll taxes in France. The ruling Socialist party hit back saying Ryanair's practices were "borderline fraud". READ  

Nepal Earthquake
Hundreds of French still missing in Nepal
Survivors of the Nepal earthquake sit in the street in front of their destroyed homes. Photo: AFP

Hundreds of French still missing in Nepal

As the death toll from the devastating Nepal earthquake rose beyond 3,200, authorities in Paris said on Monday they are still trying to make contact with nearly 700 French nationals believed to have been in the country at the time of the disaster. Paris confirmed that two French nationals had died in the quake. READ  

Jewish man beaten near synagogue in France
Security was stepped up outside France's synagogues in the wake of the Paris terror attacks earlier this year. Photo: Jean Pierre Muller/AFP

Jewish man beaten near synagogue in France

A Jewish man has described how he feared for his life after being beaten by a group of men armed with a knife as he left a synagogue near Paris. The latest anti-Semitic attack comes as France vows to tackle a rise in anti-Jewish incidents. READ  

France and Australia condemn death penalty

France and Australia condemn death penalty

French president François Hollande and Australia's PM Tony Abbott sent a message to Jakarta on Monday morning as the leaders jointly condemned the death penalty. Indonesia is preparing to execute several drug traffickers including French and Australian nationals. READ  

Strasbourg will remain EU capital, France vows
Members of the European Parliament are forced to decamp every month from Brussels to Strasbourg for voting sessions. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

Strasbourg will remain EU capital, France vows

France would never allow Strasbourg to be stripped of its status as a European capital, President Francois Hollande said on Sunday, despite the huge cost of shuttling EU politicians there from Brussels each month. READ  

Ligue 1 Round-up
Lyon peg back PSG in Ligue 1 title fight
Lyon players celebrate a goal in their victory over Reims that puts them back on top of Ligue 1. Photo: AFP

Lyon peg back PSG in Ligue 1 title fight

Lyon were back on top of Ligue 1 on Sunday after a convincing win over Reims, meaning the club are level on points with PSG, who put Lille to the sword on Saturday. Here's a round-up of weekend the action from Ligue 1. READ  

IN PICTURES
France's prehistoric Chauvet cave opens
The replica of the Chauvet cave at Pont d'Arc is to open its doors. Photo: AFP

France's prehistoric Chauvet cave opens

A stunning replica of the 36,000 year-old Grotte Chauvet, home to the oldest figurative cave drawings in the world and an Unesco Heritage site, opened to the public at the weekend. Here's a look inside the country's latest tourist attraction. READ  

No Euro hangover as PSG hit Lille for six
Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

No Euro hangover as PSG hit Lille for six

Paris Saint-Germain quickly got back on track after their Champions League loss to Barcelona as Ezequiel Lavezzi netted a hat-trick in a resounding 6-1 win over Lille at the Parc des Princes on Saturday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Culture
Take a peek inside France's newest, but oldest tourist attraction
National
How to disguise the fact you are clearly not French
France desperately hunts for church terror plot accomplices
Can France really protect 4,500 churches around the country?
WARNING - When in France use first names with caution
So what does the world's oldest bubbly taste like?
British expats left in lurch by NHS clampdown
Tossing cigarette butts in Paris to prompt €68 fines
Culture
Cannes Film Festival reveals jury
Flamanville: France's nuclear 'calamity' that has the UK worried
Features
Forget the Mona Lisa, here's the weirdest objects you can see around Paris
For many Britons 'Waterloo' is just an Abba song or a train station
IN PICTURES: See the French ship 'Hermione' set sail again for the US
Opinion
Is it time the French scrapped tu and vous?
National
Sexual harassment rife on Paris trains
National
Marine Le Pen makes Time 'most influential' list
Cannes Film Festival line-up revealed
National
Cartoonist's book slams 'Islamophobia swindlers'
National
More French women than men lured by Isis
Society
Les Entrepreneurs: We chat with the founder of Paris Picnic
National
Edith Piaf celebrated at Parisian exhibit
How the health reforms will change life in France
Gallery
Naked protests: The French love to take their clothes off to make a point
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Then and now - the site of the Alps plane crash
Travel
So why would anyone really want to live in Lille?
Opinion
Why the French should be very worried about new spying powers
National
Spain's newest export to France: Vultures
Did a row over stolen veg lead to the murder of a British expat in France?
VIDEO: French rail chiefs SNCF furious after the Paris-Roubaix race
Sport
What the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris would look like
Culture
IN PICS: Take a look inside France's new 36,000 year-old tourist site
International
Did the Pope reject France's envoy to the Vatican because he was gay?
Cyberjihad: Hacking of French TV channel was 'a step up'
Politics
PROFILE: Jean-Marie Le Pen - France's far-right master provocateur
National
France's fatigued 'anti-terror' police resort to calling sick
National
Dipping baguette in a bowl of coffee! - French habits foreigners don't get
Strike latest: Scores of flights cancelled in France
Features
New Calais migrant camp 'the worst in Europe'
Society
ASK THE EXPERTS: So why are the French always on strike?
National
French air traffic control strike: Tourists face travel chaos
Culture
Which stars will land an invite to the Cannes Film Festival?
Technology
Paris holds film festival for blind cinema goers
National
Paris wants to triple its number of cyclists by 2020
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

?>