‘La grève’: The origins of a word often associated with France

With recent protests by rubbish collectors, midwives – and a national strike having taken place on Tuesday this week – we look at the historical origins of the word

8 October 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

More than 160,000 protesters took part in Tuesday’s national strike (grève), according to one of France’s main unions, the CGT.

Tuesday saw almost 200 rallies take place, mainly in large cities such as Paris where the CGT says around 25,000 people took to the streets (the government puts the turn-out at just over 85,000).

The strike was organised in defence of salaries and against certain reforms, namely of unemployment insurance and retirement benefits, by various associations and trade unions.

Prior to this week, rubbish collectors and midwives were striking in support of their worker’s rights.

But where does the word ‘grève’ come from?

Technically, a ‘grève’ is a flat piece of land made up of sand and little stones, located near a river or sea – a beach of sorts. It comes from the Latin ‘grava’, meaning ‘gravel’.

In accordance with this definition, what is now the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris was initially (until the year 1803) named the Place de Grève due to the square’s location on the banks of the river Seine.

The area developed quickly and soon a port, market and town hall were all established there. Unemployed people would gather at the Place de Grève to try to find work and eventually acquired the nickname ‘grévistes’.

However, over time – and perhaps due to a misunderstanding – the definition of ‘gréviste’ shifted from somebody looking for work, to somebody refusing to work in protest against working conditions.

According to market and consumer data specialists Statista, between the years 2009 and 2017 France had an average of 114 days of strike per year – significantly more than any other country in the study.

All countries in the study were western countries.

The longest strike in France since 1968 was against pension reforms and lasted for 51 days between 2019 and 2020.

Figures vary for that movement, but the Interior Ministry counted 806,000 protesters, whereas the CGT reported 1.5 million.

Despite the protests, the government adopted the proposed bill in February 2020. Major reforms were suspended soon after due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the prime minister announced in summer of 2020 that the pension reforms will be maintained.

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