• France's news in English
 

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
Ukraine crisis
France demands reaction if Ukraine truce violated
President François Hollande eyes up Russian leader Vladimir Putin after talks in Minsk earlier this month. Photo: AFP

France demands reaction if Ukraine truce violated

France and other western countries are calling for a "strong reaction" from the international community if a major violation of a truce in Ukraine occurs, the French presidency said after video conference talks. READ  

Hollande plans historic visit to communist Cuba
President François Hollande has done a fair amount of travelling in his time as head of state, including a trip to Kazakhstan. Photo: AFP/press office

Hollande plans historic visit to communist Cuba

President François Hollande will make the first ever visit by a French head of state to Cuba in May in the latest sign of a thaw between the isolated communist nation and Europe and the United States. READ  

UK earns €1 billion from selling Eurostar stake
Britain has sold its stake in Eurostar for a cool €1billion. But the French are not the buyers. Photo: Andrew Cowie/AFP

UK earns €1 billion from selling Eurostar stake

The British government will be happily counting the cash on Wednesday after it reached an agreement to sell its entire Eurostar stake for a much higher price than initially expected. The deal will bring in a cool €1 billion for state coffers. READ  

French job agency offers vacancies for porn stars
Did French porn star Jade Laroche, seen posing here at Cannes find a job through the Pôle Emploi? Photo: AFP

French job agency offers vacancies for porn stars

Who says there are no jobs in France? France's national employment agency Pôle Emploi has been ridiculed after publishing a job advert from a company looking for male and female porn actors, who've "dreamed about becoming stars". Beginners are welcome to apply. READ  

French union announces plans for new rail strike
A worker at state-run rail operator SNCF lights a flare in the 2014 strikes. Photo: AFP

French union announces plans for new rail strike

A French union has announced plans to hold a one-day rail strike next week in a protest of the same issues that resulted in last year's 12-day strike, which crippled France's transport system. READ  

Frenchmen top the tables in new 'manhood' study
French men came first in the new study. Photo: Shutterstock

Frenchmen top the tables in new 'manhood' study

Frenchmen had more reason than normal to feel proud on Tuesday thanks to a new study, which found their manhoods were lengthier than those of every other nationality in the survey. But do our Gallic friends really have reason to gloat? READ  

Opinion: Commuter misery
'Paris rail network is not fit for the 21st century'
Disgruntled commuters are aiming to take Paris transport chiefs to court for the delays and disruption they face on the RER. Photo: AFP

'Paris rail network is not fit for the 21st century'

A group of disgruntled commuters are launching an unprecedented bid to sue Paris transport chiefs because they can never get to work on time. The Parisian banker leading the charge tells The Local why things have to change. READ  

U-Turn: Le Pen says yes to drink with Madonna
Marine Le Pen and Madonna may be meeting for a 'demi' soon. Photo: AFP

U-Turn: Le Pen says yes to drink with Madonna

France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen has changed her mind and accepted an offer from US pop icon Madonna to "sit down and have a drink". The pair famously fell out when one of Madonna's videos featured an image of Le Pen complete with a swastika on her forehead READ  

Presented by Greenback
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in France

Expert US tax preparation for Americans in France

If you dread filing your US expat taxes each year, you aren’t alone. But Greenback Expat Tax Services can prepare your taxes efficiently, accurately and at a fair, honest price. READ  

France probes Channel shipwreck mystery
The Bugaled Breizh wreck in July 2004. Photo: Marcel Mochet/AFP

France probes Channel shipwreck mystery

A French court on Tuesday began a probe into the case of a mysterious shipwreck 11 years ago that the families of the five victims believe was caused by a Nato submarine. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Society
Latest job vacancies in France: Porn stars - 'Beginners welcome'
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in France
Society
Who are these two children found by a homeless man in France?
National
From planes to 1,000 cows - France's most controversial building projects
National
Time to move home? Pyrenees hamlet cut off after massive mudslide
Sponsored Article
Tourist or lifer: what sort of expat are you?
National
Over 200 skeletons found in mass grave under Paris supermarket
Culture
Madonna has compared France and Europe to Nazi Germany
Culture
Are you also unimpressed by your French boss?
National
UK councillor blasted for 250km French commute
National
Say it with Nutella: Except the words 'lesbian', 'Muslim' and many more
Culture
Looking for something different to do in France in March? Here's 10 ideas
National
How can France enforce a no-drone zone over Paris?
Gallery
Here's how to be cool in Paris, according to Parisians
Business & Money
France or Germany: Which country really is the best one to work in?
National
Why do so many women in France smoke throughout their pregnancy?
National
VIDEO: Banned but beautiful - Paris seen through the eyes of a drone
National
Would you want this Frenchman to squeal at YOUR wedding?
National
'We're back' - Charlie Hebdo magazine returns with a bite
Society
Handsome men on the Paris Metro are unknowingly going viral
Society
What are the little things that make France so different?
National
Should we be worried about drones being flown over Paris?
Travel
Another deadly avalanche in the French Alps
National
Text offences: Why French workers need to watch out in future
Gallery
Mont-Saint-Michel cut off as 'supertide' season opens in France
Gallery
Ten great moments for France throughout Oscar history
Culture
Anglo-French marriage problems begin long before anyone says 'Oui'
Travel
'The stars are aligned': Why now is the time to buy a house in France
National
IN PICTURES: 'Supertide' brings crowds to the French coast
Gallery
French property Face-off: Two luxury chalets in the French Alps
Travel
French coastal towns are braced for the 'tide of the century'
Politics
Socialist rebel MPs are angry but not ready to topple French government
Society
France to welcome another US fast food giant
Culture
Les Entrepreneurs: How to watch Paris theatre shows in English
Culture
So where are all these swinging sex clubs in Paris?
Sport
VIDEO: 'We're racist' - Chelsea fans push black man off Paris Metro
Culture
Sex clubs touted as latest fashion in Paris
Culture
In pictures: The ever-colourful Dunkirk carnival
National
Do you worry about your French accent? Perhaps you have no need to
National
VIDEO: 'Fear and loathing' - Being a Jew in Paris
National
Why the DSK trial could spell bad news for French prostitutes
Society
The sorry recent history of anti-Semitic attacks in France
National
'Je suis Danois' - Paris shows solidarity with Copenhagen
Culture
Obituary: Louis Jourdan - The actor who embodied French elegance
National
France outraged after hundreds of Jewish tombs vandalised
Sponsored Article
Are you an American expat? How to face FATCA
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