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I’m actually not live at the frontlines, I’m at home on my couch, but I thought I’d opine on it anyway. As you’ve probably seen in the news,
At least 24 people were arrested in Paris Tuesday as striking taxi drivers blocked roads and access to airports across the country, while separate industrial action by air-traffic controllers’ caused further travel chaos.
Taxi drivers lit bonfires, sending plumes of dark smoke into the sky as they blocked roads leading into Paris, severely disrupting traffic.
At the Porte de Maillot, one of the major entry points into the French capital, a massive barricade was set up, essentially turning the area into a car park.
The drivers are protesting at what they see as unfair competition from private hire cabs such as Uber, and the government’s inability to enforce laws designed to protect their industry. The strike has since been extended through to Wednesday, according to police, who warned automobile drivers in Paris to avoid the east and western parts of the city.
But that’s not all! The air traffic controllers went on strike, causing the cancellation of 20 percent of flights in and out of Paris. And somewhere between 10 and 30 percent (depending who’s estimating) of the teachers’, doctors’, hospital workers’, public-sector workers,’ and farmers’ unions went on strike. The farmers yet again blocked roads with their tractors and dumped manure outside the tax offices. It was your totally stereotypical, “What the hell is wrong with the French” kind of day. I wasn’t personally inconvenienced because I was working at home, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you batty if you need to catch a flight. You end up standing in the street (if you’re me) screaming, “Bring me Margaret Thatcher. I don’t care if you’ve got to exhume her, just get her over here.”
There’s actually a website you can consult in France called çest la grève to check what’s on strike on any given day. Ç’est la grève means “It’s a strike,” but it’s also a play on words because it sounds like ç’est la guerre — meaning, literally, “it’s the war.” It has the same secondary meaning as it does in English: “Sometimes you lose, that’s just the way it is, it’s a tough world.” Etymology:
This French phrase of resignation gained widespread use during World War II. It provided the universal excuse for everything that was broken, no longer functioned, was unavailable or could not be accomplished. It also explained away all unusual behavior. That it is in the language of a nation whose life and joie de vivre was being crushed by an occupational army gives it an aroused sensibility.
So, you’re wondering, why exactly is France unable to keep its unions from disrupting the peace, hampering the competitiveness of the French economy, and causing the whole world to mock the French? And hey, isn’t France under a State of Emergency? The government has arrogated to itself the right to ban public gatherings at will, so if they’re going to make a mockery of the idea of freedom of assembly, why not put it to good use and at least make the flights run on time?
Before I answer that, let me back up. Is it true that the French are always on strike? Well, that’s surprisingly hard to answer. I was looking for hard data about the number of workdays lost to strikes in France compared to other OECD countries, and found myself frustrated by the sloppiness of the studies I found and by the way people are compiling these statistics. Doesn’t seem as if anyone can agree on the definition of “a strike,” no less grasp the idea of “comparing like to like.” So the short answer is “Yes, they’re always on strike, but it’s nothing compared to Italy. Italy is even more always on strike.” If you want fancier methodology than that, you’ll have to show me the data.
Here’s my theory about why. Toss out all these hypotheses about the business cycle, globalization, labor force composition, union structures, bargaining coordination, unemployment, inflation, real wages — all that institutional economics stuff. Just toss it. Doesn’t explain or predict anything.
The answer is that the French strike so much because they enjoy it.
Yep, that’s right. They enjoy a good grève a whole lot more than they dislike the inconvenience they cause and the economic damage they do. They just think there’s nothing more fun than having a grève.
But why, Claire? Why would that be anyone’s idea of a good time?
A point often overlooked about France is that it’s a highly disciplined country. Germany has the reputation for discipline, but that’s because people confuse the way the French seem to be having more fun than the Germans with a comparative lack of discipline. In fact, the French are so disciplined that even the way they have fun is subject to a series of self-imposed social regulations more stringent and inviolable than the pre-flight checklist on a commercial airliner.
That’s why American women can write guaranteed-bestseller books with titles like Why French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Children Don’t Throw Food. The authors of course always fail to share with their readers the real insight: “French people are taught from childhood that there are things you do, and things you do not do. French culture is in this regard entirely different from American culture, where ‘thinking differently’ is seen as such a virtue that you can use the phrase as a marketing slogan, and therefore these lessons don’t apply to you and never will, so don’t bother buying this book.”
The effects of this constant discipline, which does indeed begin from the moment French children emerge from the womb, are generally pleasing to the conservative taste: The French don’t let it all hang out. They don’t follow their bliss. They don’t binge drink; they don’t snack between meals; they don’t play loud music; they don’t get bizarre piercings; they don’t wear mohawks; they don’t jump turnstiles; they don’t shop for groceries in sweatpants; and if the sign says “Don’t sit on the lawn,” they don’t sit on the lawn — no matter how beautiful the weather or how nice it would be to sit on that lawn, and no matter how pointless it is to have such a perfectly-manicured lawn if you can’t sit on it. They just won’t. The sign says “Don’t sit on the lawn,” and therefore you do not do it.
Living such a structured life obviously has benefits. (For example, the French don’t get fat.) But think how much discipline, regimentation, and impulse-control is involved in living this way. The unwritten social rules are so strict that they govern something as personal as the time of day you’re allowed to eat. By adulthood, you’ve been so habituated to eating only at specific times of day, and even then, only something équilibré — balanced — that if you’ve been pulling an all-nighter and you’ve got a case of the 4:00 a.m. munchies, you’re out of luck, man, because no one’s going to deliver. That’s not for want of entrepreneurialism. There’s just no market for it. You don’t pull all-nighters and you don’t get a case of the munchies and you don’t eat at that time of day. It’s not done.
So what does this have to do, you’re asking, with the French propensity to go on strike? Well, contrary to popular belief, France is quite a repressed society. Not legally, but by means of its own social discipline. Kids don’t throw food, women don’t get fat, and you don’t sit on the lawn. But that kind of discipline comes at a cost of pent-up anger. And the way the French let it loose is by going on strike.
That’s why the public doesn’t say, “Enough of this,” as it did in Britain. That’s why a politician who did what Margaret Thatcher did will never get public support. And that’s why France is always on strike — even when it’s under a State of Emergency.
But why do they let it loose this way, and not some other way?
Because that’s how it’s done.
Any further questions?