• 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)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Presented by Home Exchange
Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange
Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange

Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange

Swap your home, save a fortune, and have a great time in the process. The Local finds why thousands of people from around the world have embraced the Home Exchange phenomenon. READ  

QUIZ: Find out how French you've become
So how French do you think you are? Photo: Frenchman: Shutterstock

QUIZ: Find out how French you've become

It's impossible to be an expat in France without turning a little bit French. Take our quiz and find out where you land on the Frenchiness scale. READ  

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder
Tired of bad customer service in France? Photo: Smiling worker: Shutterstock

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder

Many Anglos have a dim view of customer service in France, but the French aren't happy either with how some shopkeepers treat them. Now a growing programme is labeling shopkeepers who you can expect to be friendly. READ  

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ
A massive fire cut broadcasting for many of France's public radio stations. Photo: France Bleu

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ

A massive fire ripped through the Paris building that houses studios for some of France's public radio stations, prompted broadcasts to be abruptly cut off. It's unclear what sparked the blaze. READ  

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France
A train and metro strike is set for Tuesday in France. Photo: AFP

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France

Commuters should brace themselves for travel chaos next week, with a train and Metro strike set for Tuesday, according to AFP. But it's not clear yet how big of an industrial action it's going to be. READ  

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl
The teenager was told last week that she must pay back €10,000 in just 15 days. Euros: Shutterstock

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl

A 13-year-old girl in western France has been told she must pay back the €10,000 that was given to her by the state after her sailor father was killed in an accident. READ  

National Front pulls in 'record membership'
The National Front party has a total of 83,000 members – the highest number in the history of the party. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

National Front pulls in 'record membership'

After a year of unprecedented electoral success, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front party is attracting more members than ever before in the 42-year-old party’s history, French media has reported. READ  

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'
Both men had been motivated by the actions of Mohamed Merah, a French-Algerian national killed by French police in March 2012 after murdering seven people. Photo: AFP

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'

Morocco said on Thursday it has arrested two jihadists inspired by French terrorist Mohamed Merah who were planning to attack banks and multinational companies in France and in the North African country. READ  

Halloween in France
Paris Catacombs still draw thousands
A file picture shows skulls and bones stacked at the Catacombs of Paris. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Paris Catacombs still draw thousands

A place of fear, legend, inspiration and exploration, Paris's skull and bone-lined Catacombs still draw thousands of visitors each year, many of whom queue for hours to explore the ghoulish burial site. READ  

French to try out high-speed Ebola test
The trial will include a prototype device unveiled last week, similar to a home pregnancy test, that may make diagnosis possible in under 15 minutes. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

French to try out high-speed Ebola test

French researchers will conduct trials with prototype Ebola diagnostic tests in Guinea in November, with results expected within weeks for speedy deployment, the head of France's Ebola task force said on Thursday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Travel and have a great time with Home Exchange
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles from British Airways
National
Eight Halloween events not to miss in Paris
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
International
'I love the UK, but I could die getting there': Struggles of Calais migrants
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
National
What are the pros and cons of working as an au pair in France?
Society
Is France's generous welfare state about to get a little stingier?
Gallery
Extraordinary images of ordinary life in the poor Paris suburbs
Gallery
10 things expats love and loathe about life in France
National
So why don't many women in France breastfeed?
National
'Stop bashing La Belle France' - French PM tells UK press
International
UK warns Brits of 'high threat' from terrorism' in France
National
VIDEO: 'The Kama Sutra is not a dirty little text'
National
What Rome could teach Paris and vice versa
Gallery
What do foreign countries warn their citizens about when visiting France?
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Eiffel Tower opens new glass floor above Paris
Society
Is it really better to grow old in the UK and the US rather than France?
Gallery
It's that time if the year again: French sportsmen reveal (almost) all
Gallery
So what do the French find really weird about Anglos?
Travel
Paris museums to open seven days a week but unions are not happy
Culture
Caption contest: What happened when Jay Z met Sark O?
International
This explains why the French never seem to get a sense of déjà vu?
National
VIDEO: Here's a view from the Eiffel Tower you haven't seen before
Travel
Do Paris's iconic rooftops deserve Unesco World Heritage status?
Opinion
'France cannot reform, the pilots' strike showed us this'
National
'We just don’t work hard enough in France.' Is that true?
International
France has moved to beef up security in various public places
National
Hiking naked in France does not come risk-free
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