Why the French Love to Strike

Why the French Love to Strike

Protesting fishermen who had shut down traffic in several large ports on
France’s northern coast ended their two-day blockade Thursday — but promised
to be back if their grievances weren’t addressed. Few in France question the
readiness to deliver on those and other threats of uprising by workers
around the nation whose jobs are imperiled as recession bites deeper.
Indeed, that kind of action is only an updated echo of France’s historical
penchant for insurgency in response to adversity — a tradition now making a
comeback with the global economic crisis.

The flotilla of some 500 boats that had blocked the ports of Calais,
Boulogne and Dunkirk since Tuesday weren’t protesting the recession as such,
but rather European Union fishing quotas that the fishermen claim further undermine
already slumping business. Still, their move to bring trans-Channel traffic
to a creep — and shut down ferry service altogether — paralleled similarly
muscular action by workers across France who have taken the law into their own
hands to protect their jobs.
In the last month alone, employees and union officials have held no less
than five company CEOs captive after they had announced major staff cuts or
plant closures. On March 31, PPR president FranÇois-Henri Pinault
had to be rescued by police after outraged staff surrounded his car
following the disclosure of 1,200 job eliminations throughout his distribution
group. Such exceptional French acts of intimidation didn’t begin with the
current recession. Bossnappings have been occurring sporadically in France in response
to major staff cuts since 2000, after having been central to frequent
factory occupations by radical labor unions in the 1970s.

During the 1990s, the world repeatedly looked on in shock at acts
of French rebellion, including the occupation of airport runways by striking Air
France workers to stop flights for days, and the paralysis of French
highways by protesting truck drivers. Similar
dismay resounded abroad at images of French farmers, angered by the import of cheaper goods, capturing trucks from the U.K., Spain, and other European
Union countries and dumping or burning their cargo — which often included
live animals.

Some of that activity was rooted in France’s leftist-driven insurrectional tradition,
which snakes from the Revolution through the Paris Commune, into the Resistance
and beyond May 1968. By the suburban riots of 2005, however, the ethnically diverse,
economically disenfranchised project youths behind that violence had
adapted France’s tradition of politicized insurgency to a pragmatic goal that bossnapping employees are
now also pursuing: securing a productive, gainful spot in France’s market
economy and capitalist society. The French public largely sympathizes:
55% of people in a BVA/Les Echos poll this week said they believe radical protest
measures are justified, and 64% think actions like bossnapping should be
depenalized because they constitute a last-gasp effort to avoid skyrocketing joblessness.

“The French people and their political culture love history and all
commemoration of it — to the extent that France often looks to its past as
much as it does to its future in responding to its present,” says Guy Groux,
a specialist in French social and labor conflict for the National Center of
Scientific Research in Paris. “Because of that, we’re in a political and
ideological disconnect, with our egalitarian ideals rooted in past
hostility to capitalism and free markets even as our society and economy
have become utterly dependent on them.”

Ironically, the weakness of French unions also explains their explosiveness.
Less than 8% of French workers belong to a union — a figured dwarfed by
averages elsewhere in Europe and even by America’s relatively low 14% level. Worse
still, small French unions are bitterly divided among themselves and
tend to be dislocated from sector to sector. The result, Groux says, is
French management often ignores them while preparing for layoffs and remains
high-handed once negotiating begins. All that, he says, increases the
allure and utility of insurrectional action — and pushes the limits of
dramatic protest over time.

“French unions must often stage radical action as a prerequisite for
obtaining good faith negotiations that big unions in the U.K. and Germany are
granted out of hand, out of management’s respect of their power,” Groux says.
“Meanwhile, unions and protestors turning to radical action here wind up
competing with each other for the media coverage that creates — since big
press is what creates pressure on bosses and the government to concede. The
result is, there’s constant obligation to up the ante to ensure protests
don’t wind up ignored.”

Usually that works. Most French bossnappings have resulted in negotiations
to reduce layoffs or increase severance payouts — or both. And this week’s blockading
fishermen got a promise of $66 million in government loans to
ride out the rough economic seas. What they didn’t get was movement on
lowering the E.U. fishing quotas that provoked their ire in the first place. Because of that,
it’s a good bet they’ll soon be seen mounting their aquatic barricades again.

See TIME’s pictures of the week.