How to stop worrying and learn to love French strikes

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
How to stop worrying and learn to love French strikes
Long live the strike! Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

If you intend to spend much time in France, sooner or later you are likely to be affected by strike action, and remaining philosophical during strike chaos is an important French skill. Here are some tips.


Not only does France regularly (although not always) top the European tables for days of strike action, but French strikes usually aim to be as disruptive as possible.

Strikes often target public services, particularly transport, and unions call them for days when they will have maximum impact - such as the start of the summer holidays for airline strikes - after all, is it even a strike if no-one is inconvenienced by it?

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But if you get furious every time there is a strike you will quickly give yourself ulcers, so here are some tips to try and become more philosophical about it.


1. Think of the social benefits. If you live and/or work in France the chances are that you enjoy all sorts of benefits from generous annual leave to grants to go on holiday.

READ ALSO The perks that French workers enjoy

But these didn't just fall from the sky into the laps of French workers, they were fought for over many years, often by unions.

So as you jam yourself into the single, packed Metro that is running on a strike day, close your eyes and think what you'll do with your (minimum) 25 days of paid leave.

2. Think of the services. One thing that a skeleton rail service will flag up is how comparatively good the service is the rest of the time.


France has an excellent network of public services from trains to hospitals, leisure centres to schools. They're good because they're comparatively well funded by the state and why are they well funded by the state? Because governments are too scared of mass strike action to totally defund them.

A strike will also give you a new appreciation for certain workers.

It's hard to find a positive side to those days when the waste collectors go on strike and stinking garbage is piled on every street corner, other than to appreciate how truly vital the low-paid and unglamourous job of éboueur (waste-collector) is to society. 

Listen to The Local France team talk about the history and culture of French striking on our podcast Talking France. Download HERE or listen on the link below


3. Think of your inalienable rights. The rights of workers and citizens are fairly well protected in France and that's not because all French politicians are lovely, cuddly altruistic types (far from it).

It's that they know that attempts to infringe on the benefits of their citizens will result in major protests and probably strikes. Sometimes they push ahead and do it anyway, of course - for example Emmanuel Macron in 2019 - but at least the power of the street gives them pause.

4. Think of the valuable lessons for your kids. French teachers are a fairly feisty bunch, unafraid to strike if they're not happy with their pay, conditions or whichever reform the Education Ministry is proposing this week.

This is a major headache for parents, who often have to find childcare at short notice.

But think of the great lesson this is imparting to your children on standing up for their rights and taking an active part in democracy. By the time they get to lycée (high school) the students themselves get militant, and setting fire to street signs at a demo is practically part of the curriculum.

5. Think of your French vocab. Strike days are a good opportunity to learn some new French words. Yes, there's some technical vocab but we're really talking about learning French swearing.

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Keep an ear open and you're bound to learn some colourful phrases from your fellow passengers/service users, from sighing over the la pagaille (the shambles) to cursing the bordel de merde (total fuck-up) it's all a good learning experience.


If you're into your fifth hour of delays at the airport, set yourself the challenge of counting all of the different ways the French passengers use putain as they wait.

READ ALSO 16 French phrases to use if you get caught up in a strike

6. Don't say we didn't warn you. Go through a list of French clichés and it won't be long before you get to strikes.

Yet thousands of people still move here, and many others travel - despite its world-renowned striking France is also the world's most-visited tourist destination.

If nothing else, tourists end up with a good story to tell once they get back home.

7. Think of the cheese. All countries have things that really suck (try spending February in Stockholm if you don't believe us) and French strikes make it onto that list for many people.

But as we mentioned, people continue to flock here, and that's probably because the country has so much great stuff - from culture to natural beauty, history to architecture, wine to cheese.

So as you face having to revise your plans because 'c'est la grève' try to see strikes as a kind of cosmic tax, balancing things out.

And you know who virtually never strikes? Wine-makers, so at least there will always be a cheering glass of something at the end of your strike day.  


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