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Obviously asking due to ongoing protests against pension reform in France.

This might be just a perception issue, but it seems France has a reputation for having more frequent, visible, and intense industrial actions compared to other EU member states.

My sense is that one - or a mixture - of the following reasons are at play:

  1. French people are just culturally sensitive to labor issues and "trigger-happy" with strikes. Perhaps it has something to do with the country's history.

  2. There is something about the French labor system that makes it easier for negotiations to break down between workers and employers, resulting in workers taking it to the streets frequently. For instance, maybe it does not have the same co-determination policy as Germany.

  3. French people have low confidence in their government's ability to protect their labor rights, so workers tend to believe changes to the system — even when small — would create "slippery slope" effect that escalate to full-blown hollowing out of their hard-earned rights, so they act quickly even though it may seem disproportionate from the outside.

These are just some of my speculations, but I would welcome more on-the-ground explanations for why France stands out within EU in this respect.

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    Here are some figures proving that France does lose a lot of days to strikes, although Spain and Cyprus have also seen a lot.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 17, 2023 at 9:35
  • Another possible reason could be that France has unusually permissive strike laws. In Germany, you are only allowed to strike for a collective agreement with your own employer and not to reach broader political goals. You can still protest but your employer can fire you, if you miss work to do it.
    – xyldke
    Mar 17, 2023 at 10:12
  • Researching Mai 68 is a good place to start. The article does not really give much insight to the mystique it has given to large scale street protests against governments but it has, Mar 17, 2023 at 15:20
  • Might that be for the same reason that French people are famously seen as more passionate than any others? Mar 24, 2023 at 20:58
  • Query if French industries are more centralized? France's industrial revolution was much more state led than for example, England's industrial revolution, and France also had highly centralized governmental institutions by international standards.
    – ohwilleke
    May 16, 2023 at 22:27

1 Answer 1

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  1. French people are just culturally sensitive to labor issues and "trigger-happy" with strikes. Perhaps it has something to do with the country's history.

Indeed, French have a long tradition of striking and claim to have many of their privileges won in the course of strikes. This is definitely true notably regarding various social reforms in pre-WW2 years, which are the basis of the privileges enjoyed by various industries (e.g., railroad workers), which they do not want to let go. One also often makes references to May 1968, although its legacy is disputable - on the one hand, there was a nationwide strike and the president even had to flee abroad; and there was significant liberalization of social life in the years to follow. On the other hand, the May 1968 movement was led by rather unsavory left-wing extremists (while even the communists took explicitly moderate position), and when the silent majority spoke in parliamentary elections just a month later, the conservatives won by a landslide. The president, De Gaulle, did quit politics soon afterwards, but he left power to his closest lieutenant - George Pompidou.

There is also the culture of seeing the government as an independent actor, with its own interests, which are opposed to those of the people - rather than seeing the government as the people's representative. This may echo the historical opposition during various French revolutions; it might be also viewed as the result of an extended role that government plays in the conditions of extended welfare state; finally it could be seen as a complaint similar to fighting the deep state in the US.

Jokingly, French also often claim propensity to complain as their national characteristic.

  1. There is something about the French labor system that makes it easier for negotiations to breakdown between workers and employers, resulting in workers taking it to the streets frequently. For instance, maybe it does not have the same co-determination policy as Germany?

In my opinion it has more to do with strong and independent unions, which have a life of their own. Although not directly engaged in politics, these are essentially political parties, whose leaders are working full time on winning or defending the rights/privileges of their constituents, and who are often in the conflict among themselves in proving their worth. Btw, strikes grounded in union competition are not uncommon in Germany as well.

  1. French people have low confidence in their government's ability to protect their labor right, so workers tend to believe changes to the system - even when small - would create "slippery slope" effect that escalate to full-blown hollowing out of their hard-earned rights, so they act quickly even though it may seem disproportionate from the outside.

Indeed, it is often claimed that protesting and striking are rights, which are hard won and need to be regularly exercised, lest they lose their value.

Overall, regular protests are not necessarily unhealthy for democracy - which sometimes is even defined as the ability of various interest groups to be heard. One could compare it with the ugly fighting between Democrats and Republicans in the US - which is a proof that the US is still not a one-party state.

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  • "rather than seeing the government as the people's representative." The french government is not representative of the people, the "députés" are (in theory). The government is chosen by the first minister (himself chosen by the president) and not by the people. May 16, 2023 at 12:57
  • @Itération122442 this is equivocation - you take the term in a specific technical sense. May 16, 2023 at 14:44

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