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Why talking about France's 'strike culture' is a such sensitive topic

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Why talking about France's 'strike culture' is a such sensitive topic
People wave flags during a demonstration of railway workers on April 3rd 2018 in Montpellier. Photo: AFP
17:06 CEST+02:00
French rail workers kicked off 36 days of rolling strikes this week but a MP caused uproar by suggesting France needed to ditch its "strike culture". But why is it so sensitive in a country with a culture of striking?
On the eve of the first two-day rolling strike by French rail workers, a 29-year old MP for French President Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche! sparked the ire of certain members of the country's left wing. 
 
Denouncing the country's "gréviculture" or "strike culture", Gabriel Attal struck at the heart of France's political divide over the strikes which started on Tuesday and are set to take place on 36 days until June 28th. 
 
"This strike and this mobilisation had been announced even before the government's plan was presented, so it was difficult to convince them," Gabriel Attal said.  
 
"There is a principle of opposition, a conservatism," he went on. "It is necessary that France moves, that France advances (...) It is necessary to leave this 'gréviculture' where a strike is announced even before the reforms are announced."
 
While any foreigners might ask 'what's the problem with that?' but to use the term gréviculture, even in a country like France where strikes are so common is asking for trouble, it seems.
 
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Photo: AFP
 
So naturally it didn't take long for left-wing politician Alexis Corbière to jump into the fray, denouncing Attal's use of the "scornful and arrogant term towards those who will lose a day's pay to defend the trade of rail workers". 
 
One of the reasons for the outrage is that it was famously used by former leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen. 
 
Indeed, Corbiere tweeted, "This little man @GabrielAttal uses the word 'gréviculture' to misrepresent those that are fighting to defend public services. This term 'gréviculture' was invented and used by the Le Pen father and daughter. Tell me who you're referencing, I'll tell you what you are ...". 
 
 
However Attal defended himself saying the term in fact came from the left-wing CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) trade union in 2014. 
 
So who's right? 
 
In Pictures: Rail strikes lead to travel chaos across France
Photo: AFP
 
The origin of 'greviculture'
 
It turns out that the use of "greviculture" precedes Jean-Marie Le Pen by some years.
 
In fact, evidence of its use can be found as early as 1900 in a book called "Social Science following the method of F. Le Play".
 
 
It was also used in 1902 by Le Figaro in a drawing entitled "Gréviculture" (see below), mocking those who were pushing for a strike and it was used later in the same year by Catholic newspaper "L'Univers".
 
Photo: Le Figaro
 
"There are new words that are unattractive," wrote the newspaper. "But there are others of which one can say, sincerely, that they are not badly put.
 
"Thus the job of travelling across France to excite the workers to go on strike, and to smash the faces of their comrades who have the audacity to continue working, has been designated - we do not know by whom - under the name of "gréviculture".
 
In 1913, it was used again to denounce the actions of the hard left CGT trade union.
 
However despite the fact that Corbiere was technically wrong to say the term was coined by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former National Front leader did famously use it in 1995 when France was hit by the biggest social movement since 1968. 
 
At the time, he denounced the "gréviculteurs" as "a particular race of people whose raison d'être is to exploit people in order to safeguard their privileges".
 
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Photo: AFP
 
But there is also truth in Attal's claim that it has been used by the left-wing itself. 
 
In fact, in 2014 during discussions on railway reform, Didier Aubert, General Secretary of CFDT-Cheminots (CFDT-Rail Workers) said: "It is necessary that the SNCF leave this 'gréviculture' behind".
 
Does France really have a "strike culture"?
 
France is known across the world for striking but do they really deserve their reputation as the word champions of strikes?
 
According to a German study from 2017 by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research which looks at strike statistics across 23 countries between 2007 and 2016, the French strike more than the other countries studied. 
 
But it isn't as far ahead as you might think. 
 
Based on the total number of lost work days as a result of strikes per 1,000 employees, France lost an average of 123 days per year but Denmark, in second place, wasn't far behind with an average loss of 118 days of strike per year.  
 
In fact, when you look at the statistics of the number of days lost to strikes in each country over the last 100 years, French historian Stéphane Sirot previously told The Local, France is generally in the middle of the table. And other experts in the field also claim the number of days lost to strikes in France has decreased notably since the 1970s. 
 
Could striking French rail workers bring France to a standstill once again?
Striking rail workers in 1995. Photo: AFP
 
Still, for many France is almost synonymous with strikes. 
 
"It's part of the character of France to have these big social movements at a national level, that can last a long time,” Sirot said.
 
"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 said. The protests can be violent, which only increases the media attention and fuels the reputation.
 
So, perhaps when it comes striking, it's a case of out of sight out of mind, whereas in France, unions and strikers want to make their point loudly and forcefully. 
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