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Strikes For Members

Explained: Who has the right to strike in France

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Explained: Who has the right to strike in France
Striking workers in Nantes., France. Photo: AFP

One of the words most synonymous with France is strike - but in fact the French right to strike is far from unlimited (although it is mentioned in the constitution).

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It's fair to say that strikes are quite regular in France, and that most people support the right to strike and view it as an important freedom.

But although you might think that violent street protest and strikes are part of France's historic DNA, the right to strike didn't make it into the French Constitution until 1946 - under the left-wing government at the start of the Fourth Republic.

Hear the team from The Local talking about strikes and whether a new law impinges on the right to strike in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast - download here or listen on the link below

 

The right to strike was also included in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958, which remains in force today.

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The constitution guarantees "the right to strike, exercised within the framework of laws which regulate it" - so it's not an unlimited right.

In 2006 the Cour de Cassation - France's highest appeal court - codified a strike as "the collective, concerted and total cessation of work with a view to presenting professional demands to the employer".

To be valid, a strike must meet the following conditions:

  • a total stoppage of work
  • a collective stoppage of work by all striking employees (there is no requirement for all your colleagues to join the strike, or for a union to have formally called the strike)
  • lodging of professional demands (eg pay, working conditions or the defence of workplace rights)

It is illegal for employers to penalise, sanction, or sack their employees for striking (although they are not obliged to pay them for strike days). 

Public v private 

There are quite big differences to the right to strike for people who work in the private sector versus the public sector.

In general the conditions for striking in the private sector are significantly more relaxed - mostly because private sector strikes don't have the potential to cause the kind of chaos that public sector strikes such as rail strikes or air traffic control strikes do, and most of the country's truly vital services such as the emergency services are concentrated in the public sector. 

In the private sector strikes can be called immediately without prior notice and without having attempted to reach an agreement with the employer first.

In the public sector, unions must file a strike notice at least five days in advance, having first entered into negotiations with bosses. The strike notice can be anything from a one-hour strike to a grève illimité (unlimited strike). Unions often file an 'unlimited' strike notice in order to give themselves flexibility, it doesn't necessarily mean that the strike will be continuous. 

Strikers must also respect the work of their colleagues who choose not to strike - activities such as blocking access to the workplace or to work tools can expose striking workers to sanctions. 

Certain types of strike are also banned in the public sector;

  • une grève tournante - rotating strike, or concerted strike action rotated through different departments or administrations of the same service
  • une grève politique - a political strike, or one that makes no workplace demands. Obviously many strikes are political in nature, but in order to qualify for a strike it must affect some aspect of workplace conditions (so a new law changing pension rules is not a political strike, but protests over a new law about property taxes would be).
  • une grève sur le tas - or sit-in, which involves blocking access to the workplace or to work. Although these happen fairly frequently in the private sector. 

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Limits on the right to strike

There are certain groups that are banned from striking altogether - all in the public sector. These are employees for whom striking would disrupt "the obligation to provide continuity in public service".

They are;

  • Members of the military (which includes firefighters in the cities of Paris and Marseille)
  • Police officers and gendarmes (although municipal police who are employed by local authorities can strike)
  • Magistrates
  • Prison officers 
  • Interior ministry employees whose work is considered vital for communication or handling information or data

These employees can still engage in protest in their own time, and sometimes stage symbolic 'strikes' such as wearing a badge saying en grève (on strike) or when police officers threw down their handcuffs in protest at a new law. 

Other employees can strike, but must ensure a minimum level of service is still provided - such as hospital employees, air traffic controllers, workers in the nuclear sector and staff at state-run TV and radio stations. In these sectors bosses are allowed to bring in workers from other areas to ensure a minimum service is provided and can in rare cases ban employees from striking or force them back to work.

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Some workers must also provide their bosses with 48 hours' notice if they intend to strike, in order to allow emergency provisions to be made in crucial industries. This includes teachers in élémentaire and maternelle schools, train drivers and other SNCF employees, staff on the Paris public transport network and workers in the nuclear industry.

A new law has been adopted extending the 48-hour notice period to air traffic controllers

As a last resort, the government also has the rarely-used power of 'requisition', when local authorities can be given the power to order striking workers back to work if the sector they work in is crucial to national safety or security. This was - controversially - used in 2022 to order oil refinery workers back after weeks of blockades saw filling stations across France run dry.

Actions to limit the right to strike can only be taken in the case of "a threat affecting part of the country, a sector of national life or a section of the population", as defined in Article L-1111-2 of the Defence Code.

Pay

The most practical limit on the right to strike is financial - workers are not paid when they are on strike so long-running strikes are hard to sustain.

What usually happens is that more and more employees return to work when they decide they can no longer take the financial hit, and the strike becomes gradually less effective - as seen during the 2019 transport strikes which ran for almost two months. 

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During big strikes unions usually run a cagnotte or collection, with the money distributed to striking workers and their families, although this usually doesn't collect enough to fully compensate all workers for their lost pay.

Minimum service provision

Minimum service provision is only applied to a few vital industries such as hospitals, the nuclear sector (in order to avoid catastrophic accidents), state-run TV and radio channels (in order to keep open communication channels in case of emergency) and air traffic control. 

It doesn't mean that workers in this sector cannot strike - in fact nuclear workers and air traffic controllers are quite militant - but that if too many workers are out bosses have the right to either bring in replacement workers from other areas or in extreme cases force strikers back to work.

The 48-hour notice period applied to SNCF and RATP staff - and in the future to air traffic controllers - is not a minimum service provision, but it is often described as this by unions, since it limits the effectiveness of a strike. Transport bosses are also permitted to bring in staff from other areas to cover strikes, and some SNCF office and management staff undergo regular training to enable them to engage in operational roles on strike days.

In the transport sector the level of disruption caused by a strike depends on how many workers walk out - at the height of the 2019/2020 transport strikes, around 90 percent of trains were cancelled because of the high turnout of strikers. 

Because France has eight different union federations, strikes are usually only truly disruptive when unions work together on issues that affect everyone, such as pensions. 

Politicians on the right often call for extra restraints such as a ban on striking on certain days - eg the first day of the school summer holidays - but these ideas have never been enacted.

Valérie Pécresse, boss of the greater Paris Île-de-France region, wanted transport workers to be banned from striking during the Olympics, but this idea was rejected. However the largest union representing air traffic controllers has agreed to a voluntary 'truce' and says it will not call a strike until the summer 2024 Games are over. 

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