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"La Liberté guidant le Peuple" Delacroix

France: une Nation gouvernée par la culture de la grève?

By Joffre Agnes

On 29th January, France and especially Paris were in a mess that only French people know how to make: Between 1 and 2.5 million people were protesting against the recent reforms. An, unfortunately, not all together unfamiliar scenario. Syndicates, left-wing parties and various associations had indeed called for demonstration and French people seem to approve this movement. According to a poll, 69 per cent of French people sympathise with the future strikers and 75 per cent think their actions are absolutely justified and legitimate. So, France: a nation of strikers?

Demonstration in Paris
Demonstration in Paris

Let me begin with a personal anecdote. Last time I went back to Paris, in October, I was driving quietly, enjoying the beauty of my hometown and planning to meet some of my friends. But, suddenly, I realised Paris had turned into a jungle. The Boulevard Saint Germain, rue de Rivoli, boulevard Saint Michel… the entire centre of Paris was blocked because of demonstrations. There were people everywhere in the streets, music and slogans blaring, public transport was just a vague souvenir... I was going to be extremely late. And you know what? Instead of being riled, I felt surprisingly happy: I knew I was simply back home. As if going down the streets was a part of my culture. And with good reason: there is no other country in the whole world that feels so at home on the streets.

Transports during strikes
Transports during strikes

So, could we speak of a strike-culture in France? If you ask other countries, I’m quite certain they would answer in the affirmative. Not to mention foreigners living in France. I remember a foreign student who was deeply convinced he could use the metro to go to his university during a massive strike movement, despite my warnings. He said something along the lines of,“It’s just a little strike. Come on! Life goes on”. Poor, inexperienced traveller - Just a little strike? He could  not have been in France for very long, and I am sure he learned his biggest lesson about French culture that day.

Bastille Day
Bastille Day

Here it is: French people are strikers. They are eternally unsatisfied. A curious mix of revolutionaries always ready to march onto the streets and to decapitate their King. They are also conservatives ready to do anything to protect their historical rights and their “cultural exception”. And, let’s say it frankly, the “French cultural exception” is above all a good excuse to have a strike.

1789, 1848, 1936, street power has no need to be proven anymore and French people got their best social conquests using their feet. So, yes, France is definitely a Nation of strikers and French people are deservedly proud of it since it is the way they generally achieved social break-throughs and reforms, many of which have since been imitated by other countries. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, paid leaves, women's rights... are just examples amongst a long list.

Stop la Grève
Stop la Grève

And then, even in France, speaking of a strike-culture is not insignificant. Recently, Education Minister Xavier Darcos has pointed out the strike-culture in the Education Nationale. Speaking of a culture means that people are not only striking because they feel the need to do so but because they obey to unconscious motives which determine them.

In fact, more and more people seem to agree with this idea. Strikes used to be used with a sort of collective enthusiasm. And yet, especially last year, France stood to loose its “Union Sacrée” about protests. Anti-strike movements have burst out, the most famous was “stop la grève” (stop striking) which had a large echo. Fun fact: in order to show their disapproval, the anti-strikers decided… to demonstrate. Anti-strikers for sure, but, still French! Last year, they were about 20,000 in the streets. No less. Besides, a real tension was palpable between pro and anti-strikers. The happy souvenirs of June 1936 seem far away!



But this time, French union around its “pavés” seem to be here anew. I bet Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t share this enthusiasm. For years he has been fighting against strikes and tried to make them invisible with his “service minimum” (that means that elementary services have to be offered even during strikes period). Some have cried foul and denounced an infringement of the right of strike (which is one of this numerous inviolable and holy rights French people could die for). Whether you agree with this strike movement or not, it seems that strikers and pro-strikers got their revenge. They simply set France on fire but what happens next? Is that a success?

Keep up with the news! And if you intend to visit Paris in the coming weeks, do invest in a good pair of shoes because the situation doesn't look like getting better soon...


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