Why are the French . . . always on strike?
Definitely one of the most persistent clichés about the French is that they are constantly always on strike, rioting or both.
So is it true?
Well different countries record strikes in different ways, so it’s not always easy to get a true international comparison. That said, whatever measure you use France is either at or near the top for striking.
In the private sector alone, one study suggested that French private workers strike more than public and private sector workers in every other OECD country. Factor in public sector strikers and France would be even further ahead.
But this one from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more.
So we can allow that French workers do strike quite a lot, but there are a couple of factors that make France seem even more strike-ridden than it is.
The first is that the French public sector accounts for a lot of strikes, and these tend to be very noticeable – if workers at your local cardboard box factory are on strike this is unlikely to disrupt your life, if the rail workers are on strike then you may not be able to get to work/to the airport/to the beach.
Unions also time their strikes for when they will have the most impact, for example airport workers tend to hold strikes during the summer holidays. They also frequently accompany strikes with marches or demonstrations through the streets with banners, music and diverting traffic – basically there’s no point being on strike unless everybody knows about it.
The second is that not everything is a ‘strike’ as you may understand it. The word grève (strike) is used to cover all types of industrial action, including working to rule or holding a demonstration. So if you see that, for example, hospital workers are en grève it doesn’t mean that they’re not at work treating patients, it means they are holding a protest over an issue such as pay working conditions.
But is striking such a bad thing anyway?
Yes it can be annoying when it’s pouring with rain and your train/bus to work is cancelled but French workers do enjoy strong employment protections and French residents as a whole benefit from a strong social support and state services.
Unions contend that these things were wrestled from the cold, dead hands of bosses and politicians thanks to heroic efforts of their striking workers.
The truth is slightly more nuanced than that, but there’s no doubt that French governments are very wary of removing and scaling down benefits like pensions and healthcare provision, knowing full well that crippling strikes will follow.
France also has the 7th largest economy in the world by GDP, so it’s not like the constant striking has crippled the economy either.
Do you want trains/planes and buses that are never cancelled or do you want statutory holidays, maternity leave, restaurant vouchers, pensions, healthcare and (almost) free higher education?