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It just looks like we strike a lot

Sociologist Guy Groux, author of La Grève, says the French strike nowhere near as much as they used to

SOCIOLOGIST Guy Groux, author of La Grève (2008), said that, although we may have the impression the French strike a lot, they strike less than they did.

Mr Groux, who works at Sciences Po, said: “Strike days have been divided by 10 since the 1970s. The reason we think there are a lot of strikes is they usually affect very visible sectors, like the railways, the buses and schools. Millions are affected and the strikes are widely reported. It’s not like a strike in a private company or a bureaucracy.”

Mr Groux said the unions are weak in membership. “The five big ones represent eight per cent of employees, and the equivalent union membership in Britain is more than 30 per cent. Because of this, there is this game played between the bosses, politicians and the unions: they ask themselves, ‘As they’re weak, will they really mobilise a lot of opposition if we make this reform?’. They wait to measure the capacity of the unions to respond. If it turns out they mobilise a lot, then there are compromises.”

Mr Groux said union membership is so low in many firms that it was impossible to organise a strike. Union presence in private firms has been recognised only since 1968, he added, whereas it was after the First World War in the UK. “There are still a lot of employers who have no historic experience of union dialogue and are quite hostile to it.”

Mr Groux said the government acts as an a arbiter between bosses and unions: “They are interventionist and pass laws about how negotiations take place.” President Sarkozy would have liked to curtail strikes, he said, but he had been ineffective. If we are seeing fewer strikes, it was partly due to the economy and people feeling less secure in jobs and partly because of better employee-employer relations.

Mr Groux said strikes in protest at major changes affecting the population, like the current ones, were typical. “For example, there were big protests against social security reforms in 1966 and against education ones in the 1990s. With the recent ones, we see that street protests are still important part of union action in France. In this case, it is in a context of a law being debated and they are trying to influence what is decided.”

The unions are often for the status quo, he said. While they did not speak for everyone, he said surveys show French people are timid in relation to globalisation and market economics. “As a result, we are suspicious of everything. When the state says ‘our deficits are too high, look at what people do abroad’, globalisation is blamed again.”

Mr Groux said public support for strikes varied, depending on who is striking and why: nurses strikes were usually well supported. A big factor is how inconvenient they are, which means public transport ones are the least popular.

Feelings about the pension protests were mixed, he said. The French were becoming “more realistic” about it. “A lot accept the principle that there must be reform, and in any case it is not new. Since 1993 there have been some reforms, even though things go slowly.” However he added they felt they had been making sacrifices for decades, because of high unemployment (at least eight per cent since 1975) and stagnating salaries and purchasing power. Working longer seemed like another sacrifice being asked of them, he said.

‘Our government does not negotiate’

A LEADING member of one of France’s largest unions, Nadine Prigent, told Connexion: “For us it is not over yet. We are calling on everyone who wants something different from what is proposed to march in the street.”

Ms Prigent, who is on the ruling body of the CGT, denied unions were always for maintaining the status quo. “This is not the first time there has been a pension reform. We’ve had several reforms aimed at whittling down public sector privileges to align them more with the private sector. We never go in the direction of extending rights to more people; just of taking them away.”

Mrs Prigent said previous reforms lowered pension payment levels. “We have more and more retirees under the poverty line. Also, many women have incomplete payment records because they stopped to raise children or they were forced to work part-time or they had periods of unemployment. So they can’t leave at 60 with a pension at the full rate and must wait until 65. Now it is proposed it will be 67. We are telling them to work longer and at the same time there is a high rate of unemployment of over-50s and under-25s. Surveys show 55 per cent of people are against these reforms, notably the age increase to 62.”

Ms Prigent said that, rather than making workers pay more to fund the problem of an ageing population, a better solution would be to find new social security funding sources. First, she said, we have to get more people into work and paying into social security. There should be new initiatives rewarding job creation and penalising firms that do not take on staff. However schemes allowing employers to take on staff without paying social security contributions were counter-productive. “After a while we see that the social security coffers are empty and the jobs problem still has not been solved.”

Social charges should also be raised on profits from financial investments such as shares, she said. “We need to look for money from those who have it, not always in the pockets of the workers. It’s like in health: more and more things are not reimbursed and patients pay for themselves. We are breaking down the values of solidarity, which mean you pay in according to means and receive according to need.

“Just because there are more retirees, I don't see why everyone should retire later. People can use that period to do other things and contribute to society, as long as they have the means to live with dignity.”

Ms Prigent added: “Our government doesn’t negotiate; it imposes projects. It invites the unions to meetings but doesn’t listen. If you treat the unions with scorn then, that’s the result. Strikes are all the government understands. We would prefer to sit down calmly around a table and discuss.”

She added that, although the government was democratically elected, that did not give it carte blanche: “Democracy does not take place only in the voting booths.”

Ms Prigent said she thought the public very favourable to their protest. “We had 2,700,000 workers in the streets on the seventh, plus strikers who did not march, plus other people who expressed discontent without taking part in action. I think the majority share our view.”

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