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France: A nation of strikers?

LONDON (CNN) -- Port blockades by French fishermen irate over high fuel prices have played into popular stereotypes of the French as Europe's most notorious malcontents.

From the storming of the Bastille to the bad-mouthing of Big Macs, the French, some historians say, have rarely been further than a baguette's toss from a controversial cause. But is such an image justified?

In the country's worst labour unrest in recent memory, thousands of striking employees from the public-service sector walked off their jobs for three weeks in November and December 1995, bringing the nation to a virtual standstill.

Trains and buses ground to a halt throughout Paris and other big cities. Power supplies were reduced by a third, and 23 nuclear reactors were forced to operate on reduced power.

In the town of Albi, workers bricked up the office of the mayor after he branded the strikers 'terrorists' -- an absolute no-no in a country where strikers have come to expect sympathy rather than scorn.

Sixty-two percent of the French populace said they sympathised with the strikers in the walk-outs.

CNN's Paris correspondent Peter Humi says the historical rule-of-thumb has been to strike first, and talk later -- a habit that the French have been hard-pressed to kick despite a 1982 law requiring would-be strikers to negotiate before voting to walk out.

"The most striking thing that comes out of these protests is that the French public seems to support it," Humi said. "There's a tradition that does go back to taking things to the barricades or putting up barricades.

"I think there is a certain sympathy for such people as fishermen, farmers and those who seem to represent traditional French values in the eyes of most of the population, who feel those sorts of industries and businesses produce a high-quality product and it's therefore part of the culture."

But some observers believe globalisation, combined with the demands of a modern European economy, have dampened the inclination of some French workers to rebel.

"There's an image of France as a protesting country due to the fact that we've had a lot of revolutions," said Pascal Perrineau, director of The Centre for the Study of French Political Life, based in Paris, "But that's an historical image that no longer corresponds to reality."

He said the number of strikes in France has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, making France "unexceptional" in Europe in terms of labour restiveness.

"Economic and social crises over the years have made it more difficult to strike," Perrineau said. "When people are threatened by the prospect of unemployment, when they have a harder time finding a job, they are less inclined to resort to strikes."

Small groups 'get most attention'

The strikes that do occur, he added, tend to involve small groups that garner lots of media coverage due to their rabble-rousing nature.

Labour leaders themselves concede the point.

Gilbert Fournier, an official with the Democratic French Confederation of Labour, or CFDT, the country's second-largest umbrella union group, said that France recorded 500,000 striking days in the public sector in 1999 -- just 0.01 percent of the total working days of the country's labour force.

In the private sector 162,000 workers -- or 1.1 percent of the total workforce of 15 million -- went on strike.

At the same time, only 10 percent of French workers are estimated to be members of a labour union -- down from just over 20 percent in 1970.

"It's really lots of little working groups striking," Fournier said. "The average duration of the 1,500 labour conflicts last year was four days and the vast majority of those were within an enterprise (between workers and employers) and had nothing to do with the government."

Howard Machin, a French political analyst at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, said that the phenomenon of French strikes is a "paradox" since trade unions tend to be weaker in France than in Germany, where mass labour actions -- when they do occur -- can draw in millions of workers.

French protest leaders end ports blockade
August 31, 2000
Leader of Big Mac attack goes on trial in France
June 30, 2000
Largest union signs deal to end France strike
Nov. 7, 1997

General Labour Confederation (CGT)
French Democratic Labour Confederation (CFDT)
French government web sites

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