We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Aux Piquets! The Impact of Strikes in France

The multi-century long battle of the French government versus the labor workers of France continues to evolve in the 21st century — this complex issue is more nuanced than we once thought.
A large group of French strikers gather at Châlons-en-Champagne in opposition to the pension reform bill to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. “During the duration of the protests, at times they did have a big impact, because there were a lot of transportation strikes, a lot of teacher strikes, and a lot of other sectors that were affected,” said Aurelien Breeden, a reporter for The New York Times. Photo credit: Pierre Vorpuni / Unsplash

It might come as a surprise that the most visited and beautiful city in the world has more problems than figuring out where to get the best baguette; Paris, like the rest of France, has faced recurring social issues for the past few centuries. One of these issues? ‘Les grèves.’

Strikes, known as ‘les grèves’ in France, have been a prevalent issue for both the French government and the French citizenry since 1226, when the first of these revolts occurred at the University of Paris. 

Since then, strikes have gone in and out of fashion, fluctuating between intense ubiquity and near absence.

Labor strikes are defined as “the collective and concerted cessation of work in view of supporting professional demands”. The right to engage in movements of this sort was officially granted to French citizens in the Constitution of October 27, 1946.

Since then, over 40 strikes have been recorded in the country. 

Strikes in France have occurred for a variety of reasons. Peasant and tax revolts were common in the 14th century, the 17th century faced the Croquant Rebellions (a collection of peasant revolts that occurred in France), food riots were frequent throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and violent protests against government reforms and emerging laws were extremely prevalent in the 20th century.

Two participants in the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement protest in Lyon, France. Like the rest of the country, the city of Lyon faced numerous strikes from the yellow vests starting in 2018. These protests were a prominent issue for the entire country throughout the past few years, and their effects still reverberate in the country today. This movement was among the greatest of French history and will go down as one of the most impactful strikes in the country of all time. Photo credit: Ev / Unsplash

This trend has continued into the 21st century, as France remains one of the most strike-prone countries in Europe.

The ‘Gilets Jaunes’, or ‘Yellow Vests’, was one of the most impactful protesting groups of the 21st century; their efforts led to numerous strikes starting in 2018. Aimed at stopping President Macron’s plans to increase the tax on diesel and petrol, the grassroots movement was the longest lasting of its kind since World War II. Its symbol, yellow vests, originated from the French motorists who protested against the reforms. These motorists were required by law to wear the vests in case of emergency and chose to wear them to the protests. The movement brought hundreds of thousands of working-class Frenchmen to the streets. Over the course of multiple months, these protests evolved into a greater anti-government movement,  resulting in the complete paralysis of many public works. 

These movements aren’t just about the people who are protesting – the effects of significant revolts are felt in the entire citizenry and threaten to push the economic, social, and political spheres into conflict. In fact, the pension reform unrest of 2023, a series of protests against bill proposed by the government to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64, had several consequences: 20% of teachers went on strike, train service and regional flights diminished, and workers blocked oil refineries and fuel depots, instilling fears of a gas shortage.

However, the number of violent strikes has dwindled over time. Instead, aggressive and dangerous revolts have been replaced by angry, but not necessarily violent, protests. Though this change has largely improved the relationship between the French people and their government , ‘Les Greves’ are still a recurring issue in France. 

“Striking has long been seen as something that is justified and that is in some cases successful in enacting change or forcing the government to back down in a policy that they were trying to enact,” said Aurelien Breeden, a New York Times reporter based in Paris. “A lot of social rights that the French have… are social benefits that French people have that were won through labor movements.”

Movements like these are not as familiar to people in the United States; the history of revolts in America is far less substantial than that of most First World European countries, especially France, and contemporary strikes in the country are significantly less frequent and powerful. 

“France is a very centralized country where most laws apply nationwide,” Breeden explained. “Whereas in the U.S. there are state regulations, federal regulations, sometimes even local regulations…There are all sorts of ways in which it’s hard if you’re a union to mount a united front across the country to strike for something.” Breeden further added that the United States does not have the social safety net, such as ways to recover from lost jobs, that France has. Due to this, much of the reason why American labor workers may choose not to revolt is out of a justified fear that they will not be able to recover.

Additionally, Stephane Sirot, a French historian of trade unions and social relations, explained that part of the reason why ‘les greves’ are so prominent in the country is because of the Le Chapelier Law implemented on June 14, 1791. This law stated that there would be no intermediary body between the people and the government, leaving citizens with very little say in their country. Furthermore, the law specifically targeted members of the National Assembly during the French Revolution, who had previously organized strikes against their employers for better working conditions and salaries. Upon the establishment of this law, many members of the population were discontent, though labor workers (les Sans-Culottes) were naturally hit the hardest. 

It was then that strikes entered a new phase of conflict; working class revolts began to impact departments such as transportation, sanitation, and education. Going on strike meant placing various impediments and limitations on the everyday lives of French people. For instance, the student-led French strike of March 1968, the largest strike in French history that effectively brought down the French government, involved 10 million workers joining the student movement. This dramatically affected economic life in France as many factories closed or were occupied by workers. As a result, there was no gasoline, no trains, and no mail delivery.

Surprisingly, many French citizens have grown accustomed to these disruptions and support the strikers in their efforts. 

“Sporadically in some places you might have unexpected events,” said Breeden. “For instance, some activists could shut down a power plant briefly and that would cut off electricity for a couple of hours, but for the most part [the strikes] are very much predictable.”

Although contemporary strikes and protests may appear relentlessly inconvenient and aggravating, they very infrequently come without a forewarning. This factor of striking is essential because it is what keeps the peace within the French citizenry; it is almost as if there is an invisible mutual agreement between the labor unions and the remainder of the population that these strikes are – the majority of the time – justified, understood, and respected.

The striking dilemma of France is complicated; every year there are various revolts that impact the entire country in multiple ways. During these times, public works are put on hold and communities are forced to work around these limitations. Even then, striking culture in France continues to be valued and respected amongst the people, and these revolts are typically seen as ‘this stinks, but it’s necessary.’  

However, it is important that these movements remain under control. There are foundations of striking that help maintain the peace between the protestors and the rest of the French people; it is of utmost importance that the methods of striking are kept in place and all French citizens are aware of planned strikes and protests. The consequences of violating these boundaries could have tremendous repercussions that cause disunity within France, splitting up the community into those who protest and those who must deal with the outcome, negative or positive. 

Strikes will not cease as years go by; they are embedded in French culture and will persist as the country continues to grow. The only way to move forward is to maintain unity within the people and maintain control within the protests. Moreover, establishing agreements within France to keep the nation together will open the door to more meaningful movements as desired changes will be seen as ones that benefit the majority, if not all of the country. 

As a whole, united nation, the French will be a strong force that has both the guts and the voice to advocate for their rights and wishes.

“Striking [in France] has long been seen as something that is justified and that is in some cases successful in enacting change or forcing the government to back down in a policy that they were trying to enact,” said Aurelien Breeden, a New York Times reporter based in Paris.

About the Contributor
Abigael Sidi, Staff Reporter
Abigael Sidi is a Staff Reporter for ‘The Science Survey.' She has loved writing for years and has joined every newspaper she could since elementary school. She’s always loved journalism for its investigative angle that digs deep into what may appear to be an obscure and unknown story. She has always appreciated the devotion of journalists to their topics and their determination to provide not only a compelling and enjoyable piece but also an informative one that successfully educates readers. She firmly believes in the importance of journalism and keeping it alive. She also values photojournalism for the visuals that it provides to readers; Abby thinks that giving readers an optical perspective of a story always helps draw them in and retain the information they read. Outside of school, she loves to read mystery, thriller, and romance novels, as well as listen to music. In fact, she will frequently do both at the same time. She also loves to travel to new places with her family and discover new food dishes as she goes. Her journalistic experiences have led Abby to have high respect for all journalism and journalists, and she hopes to continue it in some capacity in the future. Even though she hopes to pursue a career in politics, she recognizes the advantages that journalistic skills will provide for her and will always have a love for the art. She is confident that she will look to see the newest articles on The New York Times every morning for years to come.