• 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
French MPs poised to get powers to sack president
President may soon face a new threat in France. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

French MPs poised to get powers to sack president

As if President François Hollande didn’t have enough to worry about, French lawmakers backed a measure this week that would allow them to legally sack the president in case of a “serious breach of duties”. READ  

Transparency: 'France lags far behind UK, US'
There is a certain lack of transparency in France compared to other countries, says Transparency International. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

Transparency: 'France lags far behind UK, US'

A new study out this week slammed France for totally inadequate controls on lobbyists. The president of the group behind the report tells The Local how France is lagging in transparency and is playing catch up with other nations. READ  

IN PICTURES
French property face-off: The Vendée vs Limousin
The old barn or the old mill? What would you spend your money on? Photo: Leggett

French property face-off: The Vendée vs Limousin

Would you prefer a converted mill in the Vendée or a renovated barn in the Limousin region of France? Take a look at these two very different revamped properties in France that are on the market and decide what would you rather spend your money on. READ  

'Sixty French lawmakers file suspect tax returns'
French lawmakers could be in big trouble with the taxman. Photo: AFP

'Sixty French lawmakers file suspect tax returns'

In what could end up a major tax scandal in France some 60 French lawmakers are in trouble with the taxman after their financial disclosures to the public didn’t quite match up with what they’d declared to authorities, according to media reports. READ  

Tour de France 2015: Five crucial stages
The 2015 Tour de France route. Image: Le Tour.fr

Tour de France 2015: Five crucial stages

Here's a look at the key stages in the 2015 Tour de France after the route was unveiled in Paris on Wednesday. Look out for the Alpe d'Huez on the penultimate day. READ  

Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France
The famous Alpe de Huez climb, which will be climbed on the penultimate stage of the 2015 race. Photo: AFP

Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France

The route of the 2015 Tour de France was unveiled on Wednesday with one of the major surprises being the penultimate day of racing, which will see the peloton climb the mythical Alpe d'Huez in the French Alps. READ  

French Socialist party rift breaks into war of words
President François Hollande's first government feel a long time ago, with ousted ministers now in an open war of words with Socialist Party chiefs. Photo: AFP

French Socialist party rift breaks into war of words

Splits plaguing France's ruling party came to the fore on Wednesday as ousted ministers and allies of embattled President Francois Hollande engaged in a very public war of words. READ  

Paris Opera lays down rules over Muslim veils
Paris Opera has reminded staff not to allow anyone enter the building if their face is covered. Photo: Panoramas/Flickr - Miguel Medina/AFP

Paris Opera lays down rules over Muslim veils

The management at Paris Opera have issued a memo to staff not to allow entry to anyone whose face is covered. It comes after a Muslim woman was asked to leave a performance of La Traviata earlier this month after she was spotted wearing a niqab face veil. READ  

Calais: Mass migrant fight leaves dozens hurt
The migrant crisis in Calais is becoming increasingly violent and disruptive. Photo: AFP

Calais: Mass migrant fight leaves dozens hurt

Tensions were high in Calais on Tuesday night after police were forced to seal off a district in the port town after a mass brawl between migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea, left dozens injured. READ  

Paris: Luxury hotel staff strike for better pay
A protester joins members of the CGT union gathering on October 7, 2014 in front of the Royal Monceau hotel. Photo: Joel SAget

Paris: Luxury hotel staff strike for better pay

A rebellion among hotel workers at some of Paris's luxury hotels continued this week with staff at the deluxe Royal Monceau-Raffles - where the presidential suite costs €25,000 a night - staging a walk-out to protest over their low wages. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
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
Culture
10 French customs that confuse Anglos
National
IN PICTURES: A look inside France's 'most notorious' prison
International
Isis urges killing of 'spiteful, dirty' French
National
Paris installs new device to stop 'love lock' craze
National
Paris cabby dies in vicious high-heel attack
National
'Paris is a sexy city, its beauty is inspiring'
Culture
Depardieu: ‘I drink 14 bottles of booze a day’
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