Why Do the French Keep Striking?

News Abroad

Robert Gildea is professor of modern history at Oxford University. He is the author of "Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914," now out in paperback from Harvard University Press.

On 14 July 1789 Louis XVI was brought news of the fall of the Bastille. “Is it a revolt?” he asked. “No Sire,” his adviser replied, “it is a revolution.”

This autumn France has once again been in the grip of social unrest: strikes, demonstrations, road blocks.  Although opposition has been focused on the raising of the retirement age, the disturbances have involved not only workers but also thousands of high school students, who should be more concerned about finding a job at the end of their studies than about their pension.

So why is this?  Why do the French seem to seize every opportunity to come out onto the streets while the British, arguably in the face of much fiercer cuts, seem just to accept the misery as inevitable?  Here are a few ideas from a historian of modern France.

One explanation is that France is persistently and endemically revolutionary.  It was the English who first cut off their king’s head, but they restored his son to the throne and after that politics progressed by a series of reforms towards a constitutional, more-or-less democratic monarchy.  When the French cut off their kings head it ushered in a series regime changes between monarchy, republic and empire in 1815, 1830, 1848, 1852 and 1870, then a variety of social revolutions from the Paris Commune of 1871, the waves of strikes that greeted the Popular Front in 1936, the near-revolution that occurred when France was liberated from German rule in 1944, to the strikes and demonstrations of 1968.  In France every other political change seemed to involve regime change, and every other regime change to have involved a revolution.

A second explanation is that while in Britain politicians are not held in high regard, a consensus politics has been achieved in the postwar era, with the exception of the Thatcher era of the 1980s, around a compromise between the free market and the welfare state.  In France the political class is even less popular, and sharply divided between socialist Left and conservative Right. The result is that when Left or Right loses an election in France it forfeits the initiative to more extreme parties or to extra-parliamentary movements.  The defeat of the Right by Mitterrand in 1981 launched Le Pen on his career.  The defeat of the Left by Chirac in 1995 provoked a wave of strikes against the government’s austerity measures.  The failure of the Left to get through to the second round of the presidential election of 2002 ahead of Le Pen triggered a mass movement to stop Le Pen, while the defeat of the Left by Sarkozy in 2007 has left the field open to malcontents able to stir up popular protest.

Some of these malcontents have a powerful grip on the trade-union movement.  For whereas only 8 percent of workers are trade-unionized in France, as against 27 percent in Britain, the French trade unions have a notable track record in being able to mobilize workers and students to protest.  Whereas the British trade-union movement  gave rise to the Labour Party, the French trade unions have fought shy of party politics and often been infiltrated by anarchist elements committed to the weapon of the general strike.  The French unions are strong in the public sector, including the railways and subway system, the post office, teaching and health services, sectors which can bring the country to a standstill.  While the stuffing was knocked out of the British trade union movement by Mrs. Thatcher’s defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the French unions seem constantly up for a fight.

And what is that fight about?  In Britain, Mrs. Thatcher pushed through measures of privatization and economic “flexibility” which were continued, not reversed, by Tony Blair.  Everyone was supposed to be able to cash in on the new opportunities to get rich.  By contrast the French are wedded to their “social” entitlements in terms of a minimum wage, a short working week, free schooling, medical benefits and pension rights.  Any attempt by governments to dismantle these in the name of fiscal prudence is regarded by the attack of the “liberal” state on social rights, and “liberalism” is seen to be the ideology global capitalism.  The French voted against the European constitution in 2005 precisely because it was seen as a vehicle for the liberalism that would cannibalize their social gains.

When it comes to a fight, the British state seems to stand firm—though the poll-tax riots of 1990 brought down Mrs. Thatcher—while the French state, while appearing to be tough and authoritarian, has more often than not given way.  Why should this be?  There has been much talk in recent years of the one hundred fifty Algerians demonstrating in Paris in October 1961 for a free Algeria who were killed by Maurice Papon’s police.  More critical in the eyes of the state were the nine French demonstrators killed by police in February 1962 near the Charonne metro station.  Since then the French police have pulled their punches and preferred concession to confrontation.  Concessions were made to students and workers to defuse 1968.  The government climbed down when students challenged university reforms in 1986 and again when a similar round of cuts to today’s provoked waves of strikes in 1995.  Activist rhetoric is full of the climb-downs of 1968 and 1995 and the lesson seems to be that protest pays.  Whether it does this time is yet to be seen.

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