The first official right to strike in France has existed since 1864. It was announced during the second Empire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, called Napoleon III, who was the Emperor of France from 1852 to 1870. The right to strike was renewed after World War II in 1946, at the beginning of the fourth Republic of France.
What is a strike?
A strike is a walkout of at least two persons who make demands on someone, usually the employer of a company. There can be various reasons for a strike, for example the demand for a rise in salary, better working conditions such as heating, threatening dismissal for economic reasons, etc.
Usually, a strike has to be announced to the employer. If the employees respect the limits of their right to strike and don’t become violent, they don’t have to fear any sanctions against them. If a strike takes a very long time, the employers are able to lower employees’ salary.(https://www.connexion-emploi.com/de/a/konflikte-am-arbeitsplatz-in-frankreich-wie-ist-das-streikrecht-und-die-arbeitnehmervertretung-organisiert, April 18, 2020).
During the two months I spent in Nice, I discovered again and again different signs informing the public about strikes of all kinds; lawyers striking, post office employees striking, grocery shop employees, firemen striking, teachers in primary school, as well as teachers at universities, and of course the French train company, the SNCF. During my gap year, which I spent in Albertville, a little town of 20,000 inhabitants in the French Alps, the SNCF held their longest strike ever. They were on strike for three months. It was interesting to see how much work it requires to carry out a strike, there are meetings to organize the strike and “strike working clothes” have to be purchased. But the worst consequence of this strike was the economic impact that was destructive for most French companies. People could not go to work anymore. France is big, and the train network isn’t as dense as it is in Switzerland, so many people found themselves struggling to find a mode of transport. Many people used BlaBlaCar during this time, which is a cheap solution to the problem.
Striking hurts the French economy, but it is also a way to communicate. Someone once told me that the French usually strike first and then discuss, whereas Swiss people discuss first and then possibly strike, but it is not as common to strike in Switzerland as it is in France.
People in other countries like Italy, Germany and Greece also have the right to strike and during the period of industrialization, strikes were quite frequent in Europe (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streik, April 18, 2020). However, in my eyes, the French striking culture is pretty unique. It is interesting that even the French claim themselves that they “ralent beaucoup” that they “complain a lot”. At least two French people have told me that: my French teacher in Albertville and a BlaBlaCar chauffeur.
My friend and I spent two days in Marseille, where we met up with another student. She was doing a semester abroad in Toulouse. As we walked out of the station, a bunch of people demonstrating came down the road. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed at first. My friend and I watched the demonstration for a moment and then sat on the stairs leading to the station terrace to eat lunch. A couple of minutes later, the “Yellow Jackets” (“Gilets Jaunes”) were coming down the stairs, singing their song against President Macron’s reforms. The other demonstration down the road was still going on and people were throwing smoke bombs. So now we were kind of surrounded by these demonstrators and it felt fascinating and threatening at the same time to watch people act in a group; they feel strong, they wear the same clothes – it’s psychological phenomenon that is really interesting. On the other hand, it’s sad that people are not satisfied with the current economic or political situation. It’s a symptom of something. Some people I questioned about this cultural practice of striking that often told me that it might be deeply rooted in France since the French Revolution started in 1789 and many difficulties followed during the nineteenth century in France.
I would like to conclude with another anecdote. The day we were to leave to go to Marseille, no one was at our local bus stop, which seemed a little suspect. But we still started to wait for the bus, until an elderly lady told us that there was a big strike that day. So we got back as fast as we could to our apartment and asked our neighbors, who were letting us our apartment, if they could possibly drive us to the train station. We were slightly stressed, because we were afraid to miss our train, and nobody seemed to be at home at first. But about 15 minutes later, our neighbor opened her door and kindly drove us to the station, and phew, we didn’t miss the train!
I experienced the strikes in France as a little stressful, but looking back, I realize that it was often my fault. Being Swiss, I simply forgot the fact that people could be on strike often.