Live From the Frontlines of the French Taxi War

 

Taxi strikeI’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?

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: 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 way people are compiling these statistics.

    You’re going about this all wrong Claire.  Just find the studies that show that the French are always on strike, and you’re done.  You’re being suspiciously  scholarly and fair here.  Comparisons?  Hah!

    • #1
  2. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: 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.

    This all sounds very nice up until the point that you remember the ones that are doing this are French.  I especially like the no bizarre piercings part.

    • #2
  3. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Only one question.  Do the strikes work?  Do they deliver results, other than just the fun and release of them?   Oh yes, do they own their own taxi’s?

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    I Walton:Only one question. Do the strikes work? Do they deliver results, other than just the fun and release of them? Oh yes, do they own their own taxi’s?

    It’s the wrong question: If you see the function of the strike as “to negotiate between labor and capital,” I’d say they work no better than quiet and cooperative negotiations do. Such negotiations happen with or without strikes, and I don’t think there’s much evidence that workers get a better deal by striking all the time than they do by negotiating well without striking (keeping the prospect of a strike as a rarely-used and extreme weapon).

    If you see the purpose of the strike for what I think it is — a release valve for people who are frustrated — yes, they work. It’s a way of screaming, “Don’t tempt fate. You never know if we’ve still got it in us to do to you what we did to Marie Antoinette.” Sometimes just getting that sentiment off their chest is all they really want, and after that, they’ll accept their fate.

    Here’s a really well-reported, serious piece on the French taxi wars. It will be obvious to any American why the French are shooting themselves in the foot.

    Or will it?

    • #4
  5. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    I visited Paris once, on business.  We had one day free to do what we wanted.  I went to the Louvre.  The only art I saw was a sign that said, “Closed.  Louvre Workers on Strike”.  This definitely didn’t improve my opinion of France.

    • #5
  6. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Pony Convertible:I visited Paris once, on business. We had one day free to do what we wanted. I went to the Louvre. The only art I saw was a sign that said, “Closed. Louvre Workers on Strike”. This definitely didn’t improve my opinion of France.

    One free day and you tried to spend it in the Louvre? I need to write a Paris travel guide. If you’ve only got a day, that’s a terrible idea. Even if they weren’t on strike, depending on the day and the season, you’d probably spend hours waiting on line to get in. And you’d see a museum that’s far too big to enjoy in a single day — a recipe for utter exhaustion and overload.

    • #6
  7. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    A few thoughts in no particular order:

    Either ISIS should rebrand itself as a labor movement, or France should rebrand its employees as terrorists.  Their tactics seem pretty similar, except that the French don’t put people in the bonfires before they light them.

    Is one of the iron rules of French behavior that all steaks must be entrecôte, and served with pommes frites?

    In Italy, I never saw any identifiable strikers.  But what we did see, almost everywhere, were signs on closed buildings, reading “In Restoro.”  This became a running joke between my wife and I.  (E.g., Q:  Do you want to go to the restaurant down the street?  A:  I would, but it’s In Restoro.)  A recent Trip Adviser article claims “half of Rome is under restoration.”  But in my experience it’s been that way for decades and, for all I know, centuries.

    • #7
  8. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Taking Uber is not the way things used to be done, yet the French appear to have embraced it.   There must be some exceptions to their regimentation.

    • #8
  9. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    “it’s the wrong question”

    Your article is amusing very interesting completely credible  but it doesn’t preclude my question.  There are also other ways to let off steam and enjoy a good romp, and better ways to impose one’s will, but do they work as well in France as a good and enjoyable strike?  Taxi and bus strikes are very common in Latin America  and they get results.  They aren’t repressed by cultural accumulations of inhibitions but by a rigidity  imposed by their administrative states.   Their transportation strikes are angry and dangerous.  They strike when their businesses, those who own their taxis and buses, are threatened.   Getting a license and buying a vehicle isn’t easy or cost free and it’s their entire capital.

    • #9
  10. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    I think this points to a corollary of the aphorism that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. That is this, dysfunction is the award reality pays to utopians. Trying to will an order counter to our fundamental nature simply forces our nature to express itself in undesirable ways.

    I think it also an interesting lesson for libertarians. Libertarians believe that the culture should form its own institutions and social incentives to affect cohesive, cooperative, prosperous polities. They believe this is a better way to protect and ensure freedom. However, culture can be every bit as oppressive and stultifying to human flourishing as a government can, and the results can just as easily be schizophrenic and unstable as they are to be healthy and beneficial to the common good.

    France in many ways seems to embody the worst sort of solutions of utopian thinking of both the radical collectivist and radical individualist varieties.

    • #10
  11. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Pony Convertible:I visited Paris once, on business. We had one day free to do what we wanted. I went to the Louvre. The only art I saw was a sign that said, “Closed. Louvre Workers on Strike”. This definitely didn’t improve my opinion of France.

    One free day and you tried to spend it in the Louvre? I need to write a Paris travel guide. If you’ve only got a day, that’s a terrible idea. Even if they weren’t on strike, depending on the day and the season, you’d probably spend hours waiting on line to get in. And you’d see a museum that’s far too big to enjoy in a single day — a recipe for utter exhaustion and overload.

    So I was lucky.  I got there on a day there was no line.  Have you ever left on a trip from US to Europe on Monday (arrive Tuesday) and returned on Thursday?  Exhaustion and overload are standard.  It also poured rain the whole time we were there.  The Louvre seemed like a good indoor activity.

    • #11
  12. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    “Pony Convertible

    I visited Paris once, on business. We had one day free to do what we wanted. I went to the Louvre. The only art I saw was a sign that said, “Closed. Louvre Workers on Strike”. This definitely didn’t improve my opinion of France.”

    This happened to me as well, except I had added three days to the front of a business trip to London to visit Paris for the first time. Also, it wasn’t just the Louvre which was closed, it was every museum in Paris. The workers wanted a 35 hour week. As an art major and lover of art history I was so mad I could spit. I considered it a complete waste of a trip. I spent a lot of time roaming around Paris taking pictures instead. I found the city to be pretty and charming, but pretty staid and sleepy. I didn’t find much of a reason to return and I haven’t. There are too many other more impressive and interesting places in the world to visit to put up with the pettiness, arrogance, and dysfunction of the French.

    • #12
  13. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    See, this is what I am saying.  What I am saying – and, BTW, have been saying for some time now – if you bother to listen to what I have been saying – is  :::: that you need to collect all your posts of this flavor into a book.  They are quite good.  Dave Barry-ish good.  You can even incorporate the Ricochet Q&A bits that work as well.  That’s what I am saying.

    • #13
  14. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    BThompson: France in many ways seems to embody the worst sort of solutions of utopian thinking of both the radical collectivist and radical individualist varieties.

    Huh? France is not Stalinist Russia.

    • #14
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    BThompson: As an art major and lover of art history I was so mad I could spit. I considered it a complete waste of a trip. I spent a lot of time roaming around Paris taking pictures instead.

    As an art major and lover of art history, you found roaming around Paris for a few days a waste of a trip? Trust me, you didn’t waste it: What’s inside the Louvre, truly, is paintings of what was all around you.

    • #15
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Basil Fawlty:Taking Uber is not the way things used to be done, yet the French appear to have embraced it. There must be some exceptions to their regimentation.

    They haven’t really embraced it, because the government is trying to cushion the shock to French taxi drivers. This article explains the story really well. I think they will embrace it, ultimately. But we’ve seen how easy it is to sell protectionism to the American electorate — there’s no rational grounds for thinking Americans are immune to that idea. Both Democrat and Republican frontrunners, as of now, are running on protectionist platforms.

    The French do embrace change, but slowly. They’re … conservative.

    • #16
  17. Boisfeuras Inactive
    Boisfeuras
    @Boisfeuras

    In fairness to French farmers, down in the South-West where I am periodically based, they work damn hard, often long after the official retirement age, for a pittance (even after subsidies) and are beset on all sides by a plethora of regulations and pettifogging officialdom which makes their readiness to dump loads of manure on the steps of the local prefecture quite understandable, if not laudable…

    • #17
  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Boisfeuras:In fairness to French farmers, down in the South-West where I am periodically based, they work damn hard, often long after the official retirement age, for a pittance (even after subsidies) and are beset on all sides by a plethora of regulations and pettifogging officialdom which makes their readiness to dump loads of manure on the steps of the local prefecture quite understandable, if not laudable…

    Depends which French farmers. Some of them have my complete sympathy — and my deep admiration and respect, because French agriculture is something else.

    Others, however, are José Bové.

    • #18
  19. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    Claire,

    I lived in France twice. “But why do they let it loose this way, and not some other way?”

    Answer: It’s France.

    France holds one last great claim to fame: self-consumed, faux intellectualism. However, their post-modern intellectualism by definition makes such intellectualism and them irrelevant.

    This leads to many miscalculations in the national psyche. One of these is the political element that believes that if they pull their hand out of a bucket of water, they will leave an impression. France, regrettably is following Britain as is slips from marginal to “who?”

    As nations descend, they go through the self-mutilation stage. This one has been underway since they lost their edge around 1980.

    • #19
  20. Boisfeuras Inactive
    Boisfeuras
    @Boisfeuras

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Others, however, are José Bové.

    Yes, quite.

    However, neither the taxi drivers nor the farmers are a patch on the cloistered world of French lawyers. I’ve never come across a group so obsessed with formality and minute gradations of status or so strongly determined to entrench their traditional perogatives from competition.

    Plus they all still write as if it’s the early 19th century…

    “Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués”

    • #20
  21. Eric Hines Inactive
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: 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.

    My irony meter just pegged.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: 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?

    Actually, not so much; although the French make a handy (if unfair) target.  The whole point of a strike, there and in the US, is to disrupt the peace and hamper competitiveness–of the struck company/industry in particular, and the economy secondarily–so as to extort concessions from the company, industry, and the government.  And if they can blow off a little steam, well so much the better.

    See my irony meter.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Living such a structured life obviously has benefits.

    Indeed.  Social Democracy.  Or Democratic Socialism.

    Irony meter.

    Eric Hines

    • #21
  22. BThompson Inactive
    BThompson
    @BThompson

    “The Louvre is just a bunch of paintings of Paris” – Claire Berlinski

    This is the brilliant intellectual commentary people pay to interact with at Ricochet.

    • #22
  23. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Boisfeuras:

    Plus they all still write as if it’s the early 19th century…

    “Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués”

    Everyone writes that. I’m positively offended when I get an e-mail from someone signed “cordialement,” and no one better dare try “A+.”

    • #23
  24. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    There is another wonderful article on this subject in the most recent issue of “First Things”  “Why can’t I have mayonnaise with french fries” the young man asks, and  a  discussion of culture follows and what that statement about the non availability of catsup or mayo meant.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Pony Convertible:I visited Paris once, on business. We had one day free to do what we wanted. I went to the Louvre. The only art I saw was a sign that said, “Closed. Louvre Workers on Strike”. This definitely didn’t improve my opinion of France.

    One free day and you tried to spend it in the Louvre? I need to write a Paris travel guide. If you’ve only got a day, that’s a terrible idea.

    If I had one day to spend in France, I’d like to spend it in a rural, agricultural area.  On our first visit to Ireland that’s pretty much what we did, though we took in some rural coastline and offshore places as well. On subsequent trips we visited some of the urban centers, museums, etc.  If I had one day to spend in Russia, it would be in a rural, agricultural area. One problem is you’re less likely to find people who speak English, or who want to even if they can (even in some rural parts of Ireland). One other advantage/disadvantage is that you won’t have a protective cocoon of other tourists.

    • #25
  26. Boisfeuras Inactive
    Boisfeuras
    @Boisfeuras

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I’m positively offended when I get an e-mail from someone signed “cordialement,” and no one better dare try “A+.

    biz

    • #26
  27. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    C’est la grieve looks like it means cease giving me grief! Boy – when the French blow their stack, they really blow – take that terrorists!

    We Americans let it all out here as you know….even cry and demand safe spaces….and get it. When we blow our stacks, we get Trump.  That being said, if it doesn’t work out for Trump, being the opportunist he is, he may show up in France to rally that energy and give those cabbies and airlines more reason to straighten up, i.e. more customers…….An Arc de Trumpf Tower may be coming to a town near you.

    • #27
  28. Ford Inactive
    Ford
    @FordPenney

    Wouldn’t it be real ‘news’ if the French weren’t on strike?

    • #28
  29. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    French Chef humor: (read with a French accent)

    Q: Why did the French Chef make an omelette with only one egg?

    A: Because one egg is un oeuf.

    Q: Why did the French Chef kill himself?

    A: Because he lost the huile d’olive.

    • #29
  30. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    I’m skeptical of the answer that the French strike just because they’re French and it’s part of the culture.  The question is WHY is it part of the culture?

    Economists would look at this in terms of incentives.  What do French people have to gain or lose by striking?

    One obvious answer is ‘time off’.  So then you have to ask why Americans or Germans don’t strike just to get time off.  I would look at the labor rules in France compared to elsewhere.  Can you be fired for striking?  Do you lose pay on days when you strike?  If not,  then unionized workers have nothing to lose by striking.  They get a break from work,  and there are no consequences.

    Also,  how effective are strikes?  Do the strikes generally result in management or government capitulating?

    The UK and the U.S. have gone through phases where striking became a common activity.  In both cases,  the rise in labor strikes was correlated with the belief that the strikes would work.

    When Reagan fired the air traffic controllers,  the level of strike activity in public service dropped dramatically – he changed the incentives.   Thatcher did the same in Britain, and the perpetual rolling strikes they suffered dropped off.

    So whatever reason the French strike is probably wrapped in the incentives involved.  Either strikes cost the workers less than elsewhere, or they work better than they do elsewhere.

    If the incentives stay the same for a long time,  they change the culture.  Thus it might be correct to say that the French strike because striking is part of French culture,  but that doesn’t address the reason for the culture shift.

    • #30

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