A mystery for Americans foreigners watching us, a blessing for newspapers and an endless supply of topics for social scientists. On April 16th, 2009, the prestigious Time magazine asked again: why do French people like going on strike so much?
After a more than two-week long strike at the SNCF, during the “baccalauréat” period and at the peak of the touristic season in the Ile-de-France, the show-business workers (“intermittents du spectacle”) are taking over, and putting in jeopardy one of the most prominent summer festivals, the “Festival d’Avignon”. For many Southern European artists, whose countries often proceeded to painful cuts in the arts budget and usually don’t have an official status for “culture workers”, the “intermittents du spectacle” appear as spoilt children who, while they’re throwing a tantrum, deprive foreign companies of their occasion to perform in front of schedulers, as they go from one cancelled festival to another (Uzès, Angers, Toulouse, Châlons-en-Champagne…).
A French culture of going on strike?
Do we need to go back as far as the French Revolution in order to find an explanation for this culture of confrontation? Well, SURE, we cut our king’s throat, but is that what pushes us to hold our bosses prisoner? To burn piles of tires and to destroy the eco-toll gates (a special environmental tax for trucks that triggered another strike earlier this year)? Let’s remind everyone that Messieurs the English started it, in 1649!
The Time story focuses on the French union tradition and notices a national peculiarity. In France, going on strike stopped being considered an indictable offence twenty years before unions were founded. Few French people – 8 percent – are unionized, whereas the percentage goes up to 18 in Germany, more than 25 in the UK and 67 in Sweden (http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=UN_DEN&Lang=fr)! The French unions are coming from a Marxist tradition, still very keen on class conflict, which is not the case with the German social-democratic unions, for example (http://www.slate.fr/story/29471/francais-font-tout-le-temps-greve-manifestation). That is why the French unions, always in competition with one another, are more prone to drastic, very mediatized actions and more used to protest than to negotiate. It’s just as much a way to negotiate as anything else.
Are we really the European champions, as far as going on strike is concerned?
Actually, we are not. It is hard to establish reliable statistics, but if we are to consider how many days are lost for striking purposes among 1.000 workers during a set period, surprise! French are never the first, ever since 1900.
According to a 1998 study that spanned the two first thirds of the 20th century, France is third, right after the UK, who peaks during the 1910-1930 period, and Italy, whose golden era was the 50s. France’s striking rate is then below average among the six Western European country this study takes into account, despite our praiseworthy efforts in 1936 and 1947.
A second study from 1982, focusing on the 1955-1977 period over 18 industrialized countries, still shows Italy to be a very conflict-oriented nation, as well as Canada and the US, well ahead of France, who is still below average – it is ranked 10th out of 18.
In 1995, another study showed that, from 1970 to 1988, Italy is still leading, as far as social conflict is concerned. France is still 10th out of 18, behind two Scandinavian countries – Denmark and Finland – one would expect to be more biddable. It is still ranked more or less the same in later studies whose span goes as far as the mid-90s. From 1998 to 2004, France ranks 3rd, behind Denmark and Spain, even including civil servant strikes. Until 2009, Denmark is the uncontested champion.
Beware, however, of the confusion between strike and protest. One can protest without going on strike: on Saturdays or Sundays, during public holidays or by taking a day off. In France, statisticians do not consider protests as lost workdays. Everyone knows French people are always on holiday anyway…
France, always on strike?
Let’s ask the question: why do these social conflicts receive so much media coverage in France and abroad, when a quick look on actual statistics proves our bad reputation to be unearned?