Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why are the French always on strike?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

Don't ask Google, ask us: Why are the French always on strike?
A far from uncommon scene in France. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP

Why are the French . . . always on strike?

Definitely one of the most persistent clichés about the French is that they are constantly always on strike, rioting or both.

So is it true? 

Well different countries record strikes in different ways, so it’s not always easy to get a true international comparison. That said, whatever measure you use France is either at or near the top for striking.

In the private sector alone, one study suggested that French private workers strike more than public and private sector workers in every other OECD country. Factor in public sector strikers and France would be even further ahead. 

But this one from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more.

So we can allow that French workers do strike quite a lot, but there are a couple of factors that make France seem even more strike-ridden than it is.

The first is that the French public sector accounts for a lot of strikes, and these tend to be very noticeable – if workers at your local cardboard box factory are on strike this is unlikely to disrupt your life, if the rail workers are on strike then you may not be able to get to work/to the airport/to the beach.

Unions also time their strikes for when they will have the most impact, for example airport workers tend to hold strikes during the summer holidays. They also frequently accompany strikes with marches or demonstrations through the streets with banners, music and diverting traffic – basically there’s no point being on strike unless everybody knows about it.

The second is that not everything is a ‘strike’ as you may understand it. The word grève (strike) is used to cover all types of industrial action, including working to rule or holding a demonstration. So if you see that, for example, hospital workers are en grève it doesn’t mean that they’re not at work treating patients, it means they are holding a protest over an issue such as pay working conditions.

But is striking such a bad thing anyway?

Yes it can be annoying when it’s pouring with rain and your train/bus to work is cancelled but French workers do enjoy strong employment protections and French residents as a whole benefit from a strong social support and state services.

Unions contend that these things were wrestled from the cold, dead hands of bosses and politicians thanks to heroic efforts of their striking workers.

The truth is slightly more nuanced than that, but there’s no doubt that French governments are very wary of removing and scaling down benefits like pensions and healthcare provision, knowing full well that crippling strikes will follow.

France also has the 7th largest economy in the world by GDP, so it’s not like the constant striking has crippled the economy either.

READ ALSO Don’t ask ‘why are the French always striking’ but look at what strikers have achieved

Do you want trains/planes and buses that are never cancelled or do you want statutory holidays, maternity leave, restaurant vouchers, pensions, healthcare and (almost) free higher education?


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

A reader got in touch to ask whether there is a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP to protest, voice a political opinion, or raise a local issue. Here's how it works in Sweden.

Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

People in Sweden do send letters to members of the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, but it doesn’t work in quite the same way as it does in the UK or the US.

Human rights organisations, pressure groups, and concerned individuals will frequently send individual letters or mount letter-writing campaigns to try to influence MPs on issues that concern them.

Sweden is a transparent society, so it is easy to obtain the contact details of MPs in the parliament. You can find emails for all 349 MPs here, or if you prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, you can simply pop your letter in an envelope and send it, with the MPs name at the top, to this address:

Sveriges riksdag,

100 12 Stockholm. 

For the human rights group Amnesty, for instance, writing letters to politicians is one of the main strategies. 

The big difference between writing to your MP in Sweden, and writing to an MP, Congressman, or Senator in the UK or the US, of course, is that MPs in Sweden do not represent a constituency in the same way. 

The UK has 650 constituencies, each with its own MP. Sweden, on the other hand, has 29, with the smallest, Gotland, having two MPs, and the largest, Stockholm, having 43. You can see a map of Sweden’s constituencies here

When citizens vote in general elections, they vote for a political party first, and only then vote for which of the party’s candidates they would most like to represent them, in so-called “personal preference voting”. 

The election authority then distributes the seats in each constituency to each party based on what share of the vote they got in that constituency. A further 39 adjustment seats, which are not tied to a constituency, are then distributed to make sure the number of MPs each party has in parliament reflects their share of the vote at a national level. 

READ ALSO: What are The Local’s reader questions? 

For the purposes of letter-writing, the important difference is that you do not have an MP in Sweden, but several, normally representing rival political parties. 

According to David Karlsson, a professor at Gothenburg University, who has written a paper on letters sent to MPs, most Swedes will have no idea who the MPs are who represent their constituency. 

“It’s very obvious and well-known in Britain who the MP is,” he points out. “Knowledge of who the local MP is in Sweden is very very low, very few people could name the MP elected from their constituency.” 

Another big difference is that MPs in Sweden tend to focus their attention more at the national level, and not to see their primary role as representing the interests of their local constituencies. They don’t hold “surgeries” in their local constituencies in the same way that MPs do in the UK, and are less likely to get involved in helping individual citizens solve local problems.  

Partly this is because what they need to do to get reelected is to retain the support of their local political party organisation, rather than the support of voters. Partly, its because MPs have very little power to influence their local municipalities and regions. 

“There is a big difference in how much [MPs in Sweden] can do. If people want help in their private, local cases, there is very little executive power in being an MP,” Karlsson says.  

As a result, people in Sweden are more likely to write letters to local municipal councillors or regional representatives, rather than to their MPs if they want help with personal problems and local issues. 

When Amnesty writes letters to MPs, they usually decide which MP to write to based on whether they are actively engaged in the issue at hand, or whether they sit on a certain committee, rather than on which constituency they represent. 

When Amnesty is campaigning on a local issue, however, they do sometimes still write letters to MPs based on the constituency where the issue is taking place. 

For instance, when a Romanian citizen living in Gävleborg was hit with heavy medical bills from the regional health authority because she had a baby in a local hospital without the required paperwork, Amnesty sent letters to MPs representing the constituency.