Strike in France.

An Analysis of Strikes in France

Strikes in France

The French have the reputation of being very keen on going on strikes. Or so they say. If you are French or have French friends, that is probably a stereotype that comes up a lot. But why? Usually accompanied by marches, strikes are somewhat the love language of French people. Odd, you might say? But actually, if you look into French history, you will understand how protesting and going on strike allow French people to show their love for democracy. By questioning the decision made by the government, we remind the state that the true ruler of France is not one chief, but the people.

On Monday the 21st of June 2021, the first day of oral examination for the Baccalauréat, an all too familiar scene unfolded in several French cities. Amidst the stress and the last-minute revisions, students also had to deal with transportation issues. For many, the most dreaded scenario occurred: trains were late, or had been completely cancelled. The reason for such a commotion, on such an important day, at that, was none other than a transportation strike.

Picture of French Railway workers on strike.
Railway workers on strike. Credits: dé

Whether it affects inner-city trains or high-speed lines, strikes are nothing out of the ordinary for French people. Different factors can explain their frequency, but what comes up the most are two particular reasons. First, the inadequate wages of transportation workers. And second, the growing fear train drivers have of losing their job to fully automated trains (for inner-city lines). All in all, the livelihood of these employees often ends up at stake, and in this time of crisis, none of us can afford to lose our jobs. 

However, what of the students who might have found themselves greatly incapacitated due to the strike? Fortunately, due to the situation, schools have decided to be more lenient on tardy students. But generally, though French people seem to strike a lot, that does not mean we all agree with it and appreciate it. On the contrary, many find it extremely cumbersome. But, that alone has never stopped unions from organizing strikes, for being cumbersome is the very aim of strikes.

The purpose of strikes: disturb, inconvenience, hinder.=As a French person who is used to strikes occurring very frequently, I have heard a lot of people, French and non-French, complain that people should not strike, because it hinders others from going on about their day and doing their jobs. Well, that is the point. The end goal of going on a strike is to shake up the status quo, and demand a change. For that, strikers must not only raise awareness about the issues they face, but to make their issues more understood, they must bring the same level of discomfort, anger and hindrance to those who have no interest in their plight. That is the reason strikes are so annoying. They are meant to let you understand that just as your day and livelihood has been hindered by strikers, strikers do not receive the necessary amount of respect and financial compensation on a daily basis.=Transportation workers go on strike fairly frequently because they do not feel that they are treated adequately by their employers or the government. Their work is often taken for granted, yet so many citizens rely on their service for their day to go as planned. By stopping their service, they let commuters know that what they do is necessary for the wellbeing and the livelihoods of others. Therefore, they should receive adequate compensation.

A brief history of the Grève

To an extent, we can view strikes as a mirror of the French Revolution. On the 14th of July 1789, Parisian protesters stormed the Bastille prison, where only seven prisoners were serving their sentence. Led by the Bourgeois militia, protesters sought to gather weapons and send a message to the Royal Court: their rule was no more. This event sealed the fate of the Ancien Régime (the Old Regime).

This event is believed to be the one which triggered the French Revolution, and it embodies the very purpose of the social uprising. Indeed, it put the tyrannical authority of the King in question, establishing a new order where the Third Estate, in particular its Bourgeois elite, became the leader. The Third estate consists of one of the entities forming the social hierarchy of the Old Regime. At the top of the hierarchy was, of course, the nobility, spearheaded by the King, designated by God. Right after came the Clergy, as the Church held formidable power over society. And last, came all the others: the Third Estate.

Three men, a nobleman and a clergyman on the back of a peasant, representing the social hierarchy of the Old Regime
Three men, a nobleman and a clergyman on the back of a peasant, representing the social hierarchy of the Old Regime.
Credits: ThingLink

The French Revolution completely transformed French society in two ways. First, it dismantled the old social hierarchy and established a system based on equality, freedom of speech and popular sovereignty. With the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the principle of equal opportunity was set into stone. Second, it forever shifted the power system by making tyrannical leaders the ultimate enemy; and that, thanks to the infamous guillotine.

The remnants of the Revolution

In a way, the Revolution shed a light onto the distrust the French population had towards the government. This sense of distrust, instead of fading away with the implementation of the Republic, will only grow stronger along the years, and manifest through frequent strikes and protests. Without a doubt, the Revolution had an enormous impact on French culture and the relationship between French citizens and the French government. We could almost say that, in the French collective imaginary, the people are always pitted against the Establishment (the state) who seeks to reconquer its past absolute power. In case a leader acts with a bit too much authority, French people are always ready to take out their guillotines and remind the head of state that they are not the main decider of French citizens’ fate: the people are.

Strikers propping a guillotine during a protest.
Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) using a symbolic guillotine to protest. Credits: DeSourceSure.

This might seem a little exaggerated. However, historians might argue that such an attitude could actually be necessary for France to maintain a healthy democracy, because of the French Constitution. Born in the midst of the Algerian conflict in 1958, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic gives a significant amount of power to the executive branch of government, namely, the President. Indeed, the French Constitution grants the President inherent powers (such as the use of referendums) as well as the possibility to use exceptional powers in case of crises or emergencies. The reason for such a power imbalance, which to some is oddly reminiscent of the monarchical past of France, lies in the efforts of one mythical French figure: General Charles De Gaulle.

During the Algerian conflict, De Gaulle had to reconcile the demands for independence from Algerians with the desire for Algeria to remain a French territory of French-Algerians. In the end, De Gaulle understood that he had no choice but to grant independence to Algeria, lest the conflict cause more victims. However, De Gaulle had been elected on the premise of the preservation of French Algeria, so his decision puzzled many. Elected in 1959, little after the Constitution was implemented, De Gaulle embodied the strength and unilateral power of the executive branch throughout his presidency. His use of the referendum in 1962 regarding the independence of Algeria epitomizes the idea of the Monarch President, which is viewed with much ambiguity in French people’s eyes.

The right to strike

Before 1864, striking was not considered a right in France, but rather, an infraction. According to the Le Chapelier law, going on strike could be considered as a form of coalition offense. Indeed, the law prohibited the gathering of factory workers and peasants or their employers, especially if the gathering served the purpose of discussing their interests. This made any attempt at striking illegal. This changed in 1864 with the Waldeck-Rousseau law, which legalized the creation of unions and abolished the Le Chapelier law.

Sectors affected by strikes

As mentioned above, transportation strikes are extremely common in France. They regularly affect the RATP (the Autonomous Parisian Transportation Administration) in Paris and the SNCF (the National Company of French Railways) across the country. There are other sectors, though, where strikes seem to happen just as frequently, if not more often. 

Protest of the retirement reform.
Photo of a protest against the retirement reform. Credits: Le Soir.

Strikes in the education sector

Education is one of the most foundational pillars of society. It enables a community to transfer knowledge and skills to the youth in order to make sure they grow to shape an even healthier, intelligent society. Yet in France, education has suffered the brunt of government budget cuts for years. Actually, for centuries, the government has expressed the desire to reform multiple aspects of the education field.

At the end of 2019, tensions were rife amongst people working in the education field. The implementation of several controversial reforms provoked a wave of indignation amongst secondary school teachers in particular. The reform of the CAPES (Certificate of aptitude for secondary school teachers) led many to head to the streets to protest the project of the Ministry of National Education.

The CAPES consists of a certificate obtained through a competitive examination. It is required to become a teacher in middle school (collège) and high school (lycée) – though certain exceptions exist, especially in less populated areas of France, where teachers tend to be few and far between. To put things simply, the controversial reform consists of reducing the time of examination and making the questions way less specified. It will also reduce the number of teachers hired. This new take on the CAPES could have several harmful consequences on education. First, teachers could be hired without having the necessary qualifications, especially language teachers. Second, there will be fewer teachers and more substitute teachers. Adopting this reform can lead to teachers being paid less, and education becoming more chaotic. In addition to that, the reform also plans on cutting down on the training years of future teachers.

When a teacher or professor goes on strike, the common practice consists in not telling the students about it. This can sound strange, as informing students ahead could allow them to stay at home, instead of coming to school when classes are cancelled. However, that actually makes sense. By preventing their students from knowing whether they will come to teach, teachers and professors who retain that information assert that their presence in school is necessary for education to function properly.

They remind us all that their labor, attendance and knowledge can not be taken for granted. Therefore, their choice to go on strike should not feel like a vacation for students, but a true hindrance. A reminder of the ways in which the system has hindered educators from obtaining the respect and financial compensation they deserve. But also, a warning for students, other teachers and society in general, that if the common population accepts the faulty system, the burden will fall on society as a whole to bear.

Strikes in healthcare

If you have kept up with the management of the Covid 19 crisis in Europe, you might have figured out that French people did not appreciate the strategy – or lack thereof – of the French government regarding the pandemic. Indeed, the various missteps of the French Ministry of Health created an impression of complete lack of control and incompetence, causing the ire of the general population.

French people, in general, cultivate a spirit of defiance. Because of certain historical events, they tend to remain very skeptical when the government makes important decisions.

When the crisis happened, they held the government under great scrutiny. The first signs of mismanagement appeared when doctors and medical pundits, sent by the Ministries of Health and following the recommendations of the WHO, came on TV to assert that it was useless to wear masks unless you had the virus. This statement made no sense, as by then, immunologists already knew that carriers of the coronavirus could be asymptomatic.

Many speculated that medical professionals were made to make such an odd statement to mitigate the general public’s response to the total lack of medical mask stocks in France. Indeed, a few years prior, due to budget cuts, the government had drastically reduced their purchase of medical masks. This choice ended up having terrible consequences: it resulted in a shortage of masks, amongst other essential medical equipment, for medical staff as well as for regular people when the Covid crisis hit. It was only when France had had the time to restock that the government made face masks mandatory.

Unfortunately, the French healthcare sector has been undergoing tremendous budget cuts for a long time. This resulted in most public hospitals and maternity wards being short-staffed, insufficient medical equipment, and lackluster working conditions for medical employees. Along with being underpaid, many medical employees have to carry out exhausting shifts. When the pandemic hit, the dysfunction of the healthcare sector became even more apparent.

The energy sector

Due to massive closing-downs of big companies, employees of the energy sector have been going on strike after strike. For one year now, the energy union of Lyon has been fighting against the “Hercules” project, which aims to completely reorganize the French company EDF (Electricité de France), which, until 2011, monopolized the entire French electricity market. The consequence of such a drastic change would be none other than the dismantlement of Lyon’s biggest EDF company. This means that the jobs of thousands of workers are on the line. Prospects for employees and unions remain bleak though, because according to the NOME law, passed in 2011, EDF has to sell at least 25% of its production of nuclear power. So, the protests and strikes have yet to end. 

But, the energy sector has always been one prone to uprisings. When it comes to the coal mining industry, for instance, France has experienced a slew of strikes and protests as far back as the 19th century. In May 1833, miners of the Anzin mines took to the streets to protest. The reason for the riot: a decrease of four sous (pennies) in their annual salary. Unfortunately, the riot did not help the workers protect their livelihoods. And, since no “droit de grève” (right to strike) existed by then, the protest was considered as a coalition offense, and six strikers were condemned to serve a (light) prison sentence. However, the miners’ abysmal working conditions had been highlighted by the press, which swayed the general public into having a favorable opinion of the strikers.

In 1884, one year after the creation of the first union for miners, a general strike broke out. For 56 days, more than 10 000 strikers protested against a reorganization project. Again, their livelihoods were at stake. Similar social movements, like the Carmaux strike of 1892, or the Nord-Pas-de-Calais miners’ strike of 1941, show how much the management of the energy sector has affected France’s history.

The retirement reform

The retirement reform is probably the most topical issue of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. The French government has been discussing the implementation of a retirement reform for quite a long time. Though Macron was the one who had to take the bull by the horns and deal with the issue (and all the pushback which came with it). To put it simply, the project consists of creating a new retirement system based on points. This would harmonize the French retirement model, which currently contains more than 40 different systems. But, this would also raise the age of retirement to 64 years old, instead of 62.

In many ways, this reform could drive the French people further into financial insecurity. After calculating their projected retirement income, many French people have realized that this system will take a large cut from their pension. Many retirees are already struggling to make ends meet, so the prospect of having to live off on even less is scaring many and pushing people of all walks of life to go on strike. 

To add fuel to the fire, former prime Minister Edouard Phillipe resorted to using article 49, section 3 of the Constitution to implement a law without needing the vote of the National Assembly. This caused outrage amongst the general public, as this was recognized as a quasi-tyrannical act which would force citizens to accept a decision they did not approve of.

Caricature of Edouard Phillipe by Emmanuel Chaunu.
Caricature of Edouard Philippe using the 49-3 article to prevent legislators from voting. Translation: “We took all the precautions!” Credits: Emmanuel Chaunu.

Conclusion: strikes as a tool of democracy

Could the yellow vest movement be considered as the new French Revolution? Since the movement started, it seems that France has entered a new era. The French population keeps “butting head” with the government, and both rarely come to a place of understanding. Tensions have always been rife, and the pandemic worsened the situation.

However, Macron’s approval rating has gone up by 7% since the Covid 19 crisis started. Maybe the silent majority is actually satisfied by the decisions of the government. While that remains up to debate, we will soon see how many people truly want Macron to remain in office, as the presidential election is fast approaching.

Indeed, in April 2022, instead of striking, the French population will get to express their desires with their ballots. Until then, we will keep on exercising our freedom of speech by taking to the streets.


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