You have undoubtedly heard of the current workers’ strike in France, particularly if you’ve been considering vacationing here. The strike was triggered by a proposed, and quickly instituted, mandated increase in the pension age from sixty-two to sixty-four, which is lower than the norm in Europe.
Striking in France is culturally linked to Émile Zola’s epic novel Germinal and the French Revolution. Since then, any opposition to anything has been (and is today) used to organize a strike. Unlike in the US, strikes are woven into the daily fabric of life in France.
Law Stuck Down the Throat of French Workers
I would be remiss not to add that French President Macron used the infamous article 49.3 constitutional loophole to de facto install this new retirement law by presidential decree. Macron has used the 49.3 loophole an unprecedented eleven times.
What is the result of this less than ideal democratic means? French society feels the law changing the retirement age is en travers de la gorge or “stuck in the throat.”
Like the people that France supported during the American Revolutionary War, the people in France don’t like to be tread upon. With its “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan, the American Gadsden flag reflects the same sentiment as the French workers’ opposition to increasing the retirement age without workers’ explicit consent.
Not only did President Macron do something unpopular, but he did it unilaterally in an autocratic fashion. As if the French weren’t already known for their “Non!”
Most Strikers Do Not Belong to a Union
Given the size of the strike and the resulting publicity, it would be easy to conclude that most employees and workers belong to a union. Yet that is not the case.
According to International Labour Organization, only 8 percent of French workers (and even less in the private sector) belonged to a union in 2015, the most recent data collection point. Would you believe that, according to Wikipedia, rates of unionization in France are less than in the US?
I was also surprised to learn that unions are frequently as mistrusted as the government, and belonging to one isn’t a prerequisite for going on strike.
The French Perspective on Work
Even as the pension age is increased to sixty-four, the French still have one of the earliest retirement ages, so why the massive resistance? Besides the autocratic way the law was enacted, how work is viewed must also be considered.
Here’s where the American and French cultures diverge. Consider the stereotype of Americans living to work and French working to live. This is not much of an exaggeration. Americans frequently define themselves by their work; their identity is tied up in their work roles.
Not so for the French people. Inquiring about a French person’s line of work is rude, particularly in social settings, as if you are bringing up an unpleasant topic.
“What Do You Do?” Versus “What Are We Eating?”
One of the first jokes I heard that explained cultural differences between Americans and their French counterparts involved work.
At a cocktail party, an American person asks, “What do you do?” In contrast, a French person asks, “What are we eating tonight?”
But there’s more to it than that.
Three Distinct Phases of Life
The French divide their lives into three stages. The first stage is spent growing up and getting an education. The second stage is spent being productive as a worker. And the third stage is spent enjoying the best of what life has to offer, be it traveling, picking up a new hobby, or spending time with grandchildren.
The Golden Age
This promised third age is free from financial worries and includes good medical care. Having this period shortened by any amount seems for many French people to be worth striking about.
For my part, I never officially retired and don’t intend to stop working (which, in my case, takes the form of writing). Consequently, I can only view the French perspective of the third age culturally, as an abstract idea rather than one I embrace.
So far, the strike hasn’t interfered too much in our immediate lives. A grandson’s critical high school examination had to be postponed because the examining teacher was on strike. Trash is piling up in some major cities. And gas may become hard to find as the strike wears on. No one knows exactly what impact the strike will have going forward. Or how long it will last. Time will tell.