Burning tyres, blockaded roads, diverted traffic, dumped farm produce and militant workers marching arm-in-arm through busy city streets. These are the images of French unionism in revolt seen around the world as strikers try and draw attention to their cause.
This past week alone we have seen French ferry workers block the Channel Tunnel terminal near Calais after setting fire to tyres, sending huge clouds of acrid black smoke into the skies and bringing travel misery to thousands of motorists.
Earlier this month main French air traffic controllers’ union, the SNCTA, angry with just about everything from the retirement age to what it calls the “gradual deterioration of conditions of air traffic controllers” had a 48-hour stoppage to draw attention to their grievances. Before them came taxi drivers protesting against UBER. Channel dock workers had their two-days worth. Tobacconists, too.
Why do they do it? Because in France angry public displays of militancy works.
“The culture of protesting is entrenched in France and when it comes to the authorities as well as public opinion, there is a certain tolerance that you might not find elsewhere,” historian Stéphane Sirot, who specializes in French social movements, told The Local.
So while the British public were shocked by the recent blockade of Calais that reportedly cost the British economy €1 billion, the French public and the media barely noticed.
“France is the country of revolution and of street protests, led by the popular classes. It’s a tradition here,” said Sirot.
In France, unlike in other countries, unions often decide to flex their muscles first in order to give them greater negotiating power when talks begin. In northern European countries and the likes of Germany, strikes only follow if long-running talks fail.
The protests, the fires, the road blocks, the clashes with riot police, the emptying of supermarket freezers of foreign meat products, are all part of the democratic process in France, Sirot says.
“This conflict is part of a process of compromise, perhaps the first stage in the negotiations process. Often without this initial conflict, no negotiations would take place,” he said.
A “French peculiarity”, Sirot explains, is that disgruntled workers in France still expect the centralized state to come to their aid, when things don’t go their way. For its part the government is highly susceptible to public opinion, which can partly explain the success of the militant movements.
“The strikers capacity to disrupt daily life is fundamental to their cause and it puts more pressure on the state to intervene,” Sirot says. “Strikers know the political and economic climate in the country and they realize they can pile pressure on the government.”
Sirot points to the UK where David Cameron’s Conservative government is preparing what he calls “the biggest attack on trade unions for 30 years”.
Under the proposed legislation, workers wouldn’t be able to strike unless at least 50 per cent of those eligible to participate in the ballot for industrial action take part. For workers in essential services such as transport, health, and schools, there will be an even higher threshold that at least 40 per cent of workers eligible to take part in a ballot will need to vote in favour of the strike for it to go ahead.
“You can’t imagine the government in France trying to do what the Conservatives are doing in the UK. Even if Sarkozy managed to restrict the right to strike for transport workers, it’s still considered fundamental in France.
“There would be a huge reaction here. It would stir a huge public row.”
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