Why what's happening in France isn't 'just another French strike'

French unions have been staging rolling protests over a new labor reform law. The public is of two minds on both the reforms and the strikes.

Markus Schreiber/AP
Labor union members on strike with a poster reading 'Railway workers from St Lazare station on strike!' shout slogans as they attend a demonstration in Paris, Thursday.

Fuel shortages, cancelled flights, disrupted trains: France is on strike yet again. The stakes get higher each day. The Euro 2016 soccer championship, which will see hundreds of thousands of visitors traveling to France to root for their national soccer teams, is set to start on June 10. At the same time, Paris is dealing with a constant terrorist threat and now record flooding.

From afar, it’s easy to see these latest strikes, prompted by a new government attempt at labor reform, as the exclamation of an over-unionized nation stubbornly holding onto protections and privileges that are hardly competitive in the global economy. France’s unemployment rate hasn’t significantly budged since President François Hollande took office.

But union membership here is below average for industrialized nations, and the unions are bitterly divided between a reformist wing and a more radical one – the one leading these strikes.

As for the public, they don’t line up neatly behind either the government or the unions. Rather, they feel ambivalent about where the country needs to go and how. In fact, these strikes – the worst in a half-decade and the biggest political challenge yet for the deeply unpopular president – don’t necessarily reflect a nation digging in its heels.

“There are fewer and fewer strikes in France, because the unions don’t have as much influence as before and the French have better accepted that they have to adapt to the global economy and international competition,” says Pierre Broisard, a sociologist at ENS Cachan University who specializes in workers and social movements. “They are more realistic.”

Fight over reform

The strikes started mounting in March, after the Socialist government proposed a labor reform that would loosen France’s infamously rigid labor law, making it easier to fire – but also thus hire – employees. Mr. Hollande's presidency depends on it: He promised he won’t stand for re-election if he doesn’t get unemployment figures down. In a sign of how much the government needs it to pass, it was pushed through the National Assembly last month by a rarely used executive power to bypass a vote.

The labor reforms are similar to ones that have been made across Europe – and have already been watered down since the March protests began. But France’s most radical union, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which largely represents the transportation and energy sectors, has been particularly irked by changes that would allow companies to negotiate their own contracts with employees outside of the sector agreements in place.

CGT has pushed back in a fury of rolling strikes and promised to carry on until the bill is scrapped. It even resorted to blocking oil refineries last week, leading to fuel shortages. While air controllers lifted their threatened strike for the weekend, it’s still unclear if the Euro '16 soccer tournament, which lasts until July 10, will be impacted. On June 14, the unions have called for a general strike.

Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have promised they won't be cowed. “The proposed law won’t be withdrawn,” the president said in the Sud Ouest newspaper on Tuesday. “It represents useful progress for our country that I believe we have to see it through.”

And while a majority of French have voiced support for the strikers, recent polls show support – and patience – may be ebbing.

Not so unionized

The right to strike is deeply ingrained in the mindset here, with the 1968 student protests a reference point for understanding French society. Strikes do happen often, but lately their results are a mixed bag. Some strikes are popular in France, others  not – usually depending on the sector and how inconvenient they are. The unions are facing declining membership, at just under 8 percent, according to OECD figures, though unlike in the US, most workers are covered by union protections even if they aren’t members.

These strikes happen to hit at the heart of French pessimism about globalization, which is why support for them has remained relatively high.

“I think that France is a country that is afraid to reform,” says Guy Groux, an expert on trade unions and social movements at Sciences Po in Paris. Reform proposals trigger classic defenses, he says. “People feel that they have something to lose, that they are never going to win.”

In fact, the majority of voters can understand the arguments on both sides, perhaps no one better than Caroline Peyeralde, who is awaiting a permanent contract. It means everything to her – she’s been out of a job for a year and a half. And she’s been unable to find a new one, not least because French employers are afraid to hire workers, since under the current laws it is so hard to later fire them.

She knows France needs to change. Getting an internship at a bakery, which she hopes turns into a permanent job, has required navigating a maze of bureaucracy – wasting so much time that she could have lost the opportunity “and Hollande would lose the opportunity to have one less unemployed worker,” she says. And she abhors the strikers who fight to perpetuate privileges and power – especially those who have resorted to violence.

But she supports these strikes in general because otherwise she believes it’s a race to the bottom. “Unfortunately you have to be radical to be heard,” she says. “They [the government] don’t listen otherwise. They don’t work in bakeries, they don’t live in my tiny apartment.”

A deeper meaning

She touches on a growing sentiment: that these strikes are the expression of a generalized discontent about the direction of French society, an outlook encapsulated perfectly in the youth movement called Nuit Debout.

Nuit Debout started as a youth protest against the labor reform but now stands against everything from mainstream politics and nuclear power to GMOs and capitalism. Young people camping out at Republique square talk defiantly about “changing the system” and having their message heard “around the world.”

But it’s also about coming together to express fear that their prospects will never match that of their parents, says Gwen Hertling, one of the protesters. “For years, people were in their corners, complaining alone and upset about how things were going in the country,” he says. “People are happy to finally be united all together.”

All of these strikes and demonstrations, including some incidents of violence, have the tourism board on edge. Hotel occupancy is already way down after the terrorist attacks in November. "The scenes of guerrilla-type action in the middle of Paris, beamed around the world, reinforce the feeling of fear and misunderstanding," the tourist board said.

But for now the French people remain more patient. Thomas Guenole, political scientist in France, says polls showing tolerance for the strikes reflect the classic divide between France (along with many other European countries) and the Anglo-Saxon world where the “culture of individualism is way stronger,” he says.

That means the inconvenience to the individual is emphasized in the US or Britain, for example, “while we put way more consideration into the legitimacy of the collective fight for rights.”

• Colette Davidson contributed to this report.

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