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Grève illimitée or générale: 12 bits of French strike vocab you need to know

If you're learning French it's a good idea to stick to everyday topics - and what is more quintessentially French than a strike? Here is some vocabulary to help you understand what is going on at strike times.

Grève illimitée or générale: 12 bits of French strike vocab you need to know
Strikes have been part of life in France for many decades. Photo from 1947 by AFP

Not all French strikes are created equal, so it’s important to know what type of strike is going on, as this will help you understand how much disruption it’s likely to cause.

You can hear the pronunciation of all of these words (plus a couple of explicit ones) in our Talking France strike special podcast episode. Download here or listen on the link below.

Une grève – a strike. This is the basic word for strike, and striking workers are en grève (on strike)

Un mouvement social – literally translated as ‘social movement’ this is another way of saying strike. It’s the word that transport companies tend to use, so if you hear an announcement that starts with En raison d’un mouvement social (because of a strike) it’s likely to be telling you that your train/plane/bus is either cancelled or delayed.

Une grève illimitée – unions must file notice of their intention to strike, and this is either a notice for a set date or series of dates, or an ‘unlimited’ strike notice. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the strike will continue indefinitely, unions sometimes file an ‘unlimited’ notice and then decide to take only only on certain days, for example every Wednesday

Une grève generale – a general strike is when all or almost all workers (including public and private sector) are on strike. These are very rare and haven’t really been seen in France since 1968. Most strikes are either specific to a sector – eg a teachers’ strike – or cover multiple sectors such as transport workers, teachers and civil servants. You will, however, hear people calling for a ‘general strike’ at times of social tension.

Intersyndical – this means that several different unions have joined together to back a strike. Because of the fragmented nature of the French union landscape, strikes usually only cause major disruption when most or all of the eight union federations unite.

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

Très suivi – literally ‘very followed’ this means a strike with strong backing from workers, which is therefore likely to cause a lot of disruption.

Se mobiliser – the general verb ‘to mobilise’ signifies that workers are taking action – usually by striking but sometimes by staging protests (this is particularly the case among the essential workers who are banned from striking such as police and certain health workers) and demonstrations.

Manif – the verb is manifester (to demonstrate) and the noun is une manifestation but the phrase you will probably hear most often is the shortened form to describe a march or demo.

Perturbé/ perturbations – delayed/delays. This is the general word telling you that a certain service will be disrupted by strike action. You might also hear fortement pertubé (severely disrupted) or légèrement pertubé (mildly disrupted).

Retardé – delayed. If your train/bus/plane is delayed this is what will appear on the announcement board or app, usually followed by a indication of the length of the delay eg retardé 1h (one hour delay).

Annulé – cancelled

Supprimé – literally translated as ‘deleted’ this also means cancelled in the context of transport

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Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

Paris regional officials have reportedly asked the French Senate to limit the right to strike during the 2024 Olympics in an effort to ensure smooth operations for public transport.

Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

As unions organise ahead of a day of mobilisation and walkouts on January 31st to protest proposed pension reform, head of the greater Paris region (and right-wing former presidential candidate) Valérie Pécresse ha reportedly requested that the French government restricts the right to strike during the 2024 Games.

A member of Pécresse’s team told Le Parisien that the objective was to place limits on the right to strike in an attempt to stop certain unions from abusing the right and “completely disrupting [public transport] services”. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

However, the proposals were rejected by the French Senate and were denounced by unions as “another attack on the right to strike”.

Although strikes are common in France there are some limits – workers in essential industries like public transport must give 48 hours’ notice of their intention to strike and workers in certain sectors including the army and emergency services are banned from striking.

The French government also has a rarely-used strike-busting power which allows it to force strikers back to work if their actions are affecting the security of the county.

Pécresse’s request came just a few days before the French government was set to debate an “Olympics bill” – which will establish some exemptions to current regulations in the effort of ensuring “smooth running” of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Concerns have arisen regarding the possibility of industrial action during the Olympic Games, which will come after the controversial opening up of competition the Paris public transport system (the RATP). During a speech in mid-January, Pécresse told IDFM that she hoped to create “100 percent guaranteed service during peak hours” on public transport, even during strike action.

Members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet have also expressed apprehension about possible strike action during the Olympics.

The attempt to add amendments that would restrict striking came just a day after French Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, told Télématin that there were no plans to “touch the right to strike”, but that Macron had tasked the ministry with look into setting up more significant warning periods, as well as safeguarded periods for “vacation departures”. The minister also discussed the idea of having reserves of workers who could be mobilised to help during strike periods.

It was a member of Pécresse’s centre-right party – Philippe Tabarot – sought to add amendments restricting the right to strike to the bill, but they were ultimately rejected by the Senate. He referred to strike action at French national rail services (SNCF) during the Christmas holidays – which left 200,000 people without transport – as “intolerable” and said that “the right to strike is now being abused”.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t strike at Christmas’ – fury in France as trains cancelled

According to Le Parisien, Tabraot specifically sought require unions to provide strike notice at least 72-hours ahead of industrial action – instead of the current 48-hours. Additionally, the proposed amendments would make it so unions could not reactive an old “unlimited” strike notice that was filed several years ago and has since gone unused. The latter would attempt to diminish workers’ ability to spontaneously walk out.

And finally Tabarot hoped to add an amendment that would limit ‘short strikes’ by requiring workers to join strike action “at the start of their first shift” that day. This would make it so workers could not walk out in the middle of services for ‘short’ (under 59 minute) strikes.

Even though Tabarot’s amendments were not accepted during this attempt, the elected official said that the Senate would have to return to the subject in the following weeks and months, as the French parliament continues to consider the Olympics bill.