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Préavis, piquet: Test out your French strike vocabulary

With SNCF and Paris airports unions mobilising for industry action this week, we look at some useful words relating to such movements

We look at seven French terms used to talk about strikes Pic: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

SNCF has warned passengers of disruption to TGV, TER and Ile-de-France train services today (July 6), as unions demand negotiations over salaries. 

Read more: SNCF strikes to heavily disrupt train travel in France on Wednesday

This comes as staff at Aéroports de Paris prepare to strike for a second weekend, after up to 17% of flights from Charles de Gaulle and Orly were cancelled last Thursday and Friday (June 30-July 1).

Ahead of this industry action, we look at some key phrases used to describe strikes in French.

1. Grève 

The most obvious term associated with industry action in France is grève (strike). 

It has been claimed that the use of the word grève for ‘strike’ comes from Place de Grève in Paris – which is now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville – because in mediaeval times unemployed people would gather in the square to try to find work. 

The origin of the term grève can be found in the Vulgar Latin word grava, meaning ‘gravel’. Grève was first recorded in 876, meaning plage (beach). 

The term began to be used to mean a gravelly or sandy stretch or area of land, and then “the common space [or] meeting place of citizens [...] a place of exchange, selling, haggling,” according to Tournier. 

Paris’ Place de Grève became one of these market squares, as its name might suggest. 

In this time, workers may ‘faire la grève’, that is, set off for one of these squares in search of goods or employment. In Des mots sur la grève, Tournier writes: “If one was not happy with their employer, one could leave them and revenir en grève [go back to the grève].” 

It is from this – the idea of ceasing work to look for a better offer – that the modern term likely originates.

2. Préavis de grève

Unions must publish a préavis de grève (strike notice) to employers five days before the industry action is due to take place in the public sector. 

In the private sector, this is not obligatory.

3. Service minimum 

The term service minimum refers to a minimum guaranteed service in the case of strike action. 

This exists in certain sectors in France, including schools and healthcare. 

Read more: French school strike: How does the ‘minimum reception service’ work?

4. Grève perlée

A grève perlée (which would initially appear to translate as a ‘pearly’ or ‘beaded strike’) is not a full strike but rather a slowdown or reduction in productivity.

However, the term is also used to describe intermittent and repeated cessations, and was employed widely in 2018, when SNCF unions decided to organise 36 strike days over three months, with two in every five days involving industrial action.

The verb perler can be used to describe something that is formed bit by bit, or something which produces droplets of fluid, and this idea offers a nod towards the drawn-out, often sporadic nature of this type of industry action. 

5. Grève illimitée

A grève illimité (unlimited strike) has no fixed end date, and so the strike can be renewed if a solution is not found. 

This is opposed to a grève carrée or simple, which can only last for a certain amount of time.

There is also a grève reconductible, which can be repeated if workers vote in favour of continued action.

6. Piquet de grève 

Piquet de grève, or picket line, refers to the groups of workers who stand outside their place of work to try to block the entrance and dissuade their colleagues from entering.

7. Grève générale 

A grève générale (general strike) involves workers from across different sectors. The last day of industrial action which came close to this sort of strike was on January 27, when farmers, teachers, transport operators and other workers all mobilised at the same time. 

Related articles 

French TV and radio stations strike over plan to end licence fee

Train ticket boost, airline strikes: nine France travel updates

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