Why Is The French Labour Movement So Powerful?

From time to time, I check out the The Real News Network.  I’ve just finished watching a video clip they’ve featured on labour protests in France over the government’s attempt to raise the “pension age” from 60 to 62.  The coverage includes a brief look at the impact of the blockades of French oil refineries.

I’m struck by how powerful the French labour movement is portrayed to be in the footage.  Though I’m only 36 years old, I can’t recall a time when the Canadian labour movement has been successful at having such a big impact on the economy through an act of protest.  (And when tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets in Toronto for the G20 recently, they had the living crap beaten out of them, apparently with the blessing of voters.)

At the risk of sounding naive, I wonder what it is that makes French labour so powerful.  I’m especially curious as to what it would take for organized labour in Canada to become equally powerful.

UPDATE: According to a CBC story, one-quarter of gas stations in France remain closed.  The majority of the French support the protests (even as they move into their second week), millions have taken to the streets, and President Sarkozy’s approval rating has now fallen to its lowest level ever.


  • Protesting in the streets , in France, started in 1789 when people in Paris took the Bastille. And it worked very well! We have not forgotten that lesson. That is why, when our complains are not heard by politicians going on strike and blocking the system is the only solution we have.
    In fact, pension age is the “outside part of the iceberg”. What people do want and act for is more justice. Everybody believes we live in a word where there is more and more for the rich, harder and harder life for workers and poor people, and this is becoming unbearable, so….go back to the beggining of this post 🙂

  • Maybe it’s cultural mentality.

    Unlike France, Canada is a country populated with lots of families who immigrated here in the last 100 years. And when you come to a new place as an immigrant, you’ve probably got a very individualistic mentality; you have to start from scratch and work to make your own living.

    Labour movements tend to be based on entitlement — the idea that the government or the employer owes me something. But I think most immigrants don’t have the mentality that they’re owed something by the new country’s government; rather, I think there’s more a mentality that they have to provide for themselves and prove themselves in the new country. That every-man-for-himself mentality doesn’t jibe well with labour movements.

    Obviously, some of that individualistic mentality will subside over time, but I’m guessing a good chunk of it passes from generation to generation, such that it’ll take a huge cultural shift for there to be a major breakthrough in organized labour.

    That’s just my hunch.

  • Hi all, I think the question might be outside of the scope of economic analysis per se… I suggest reading a little sociology, I would start with Charles Tilly, The Contentious French (1986), and then for a comparative perspective, Contention & Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000 (2004). Alot of other authors have worked on the question, France is basically much more politicised as a society, dissensus is appreciated culturally and sustained institutionnally, impassioned political conflict (with its lot of phyiscal violence) is part of the governing process. Here, land of the “extreme center” poltical conflict is neutralised and feared, as was obvious during the G20 meetings in Toronto. BTW Québec has been slightly infected by this culture which also explains some knee jerk reactions like the tumultuous public debates that marked the sour gas hearings last month.
    Btw for an “inside” reading of this question you can read Jacques Rancière Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics and Bernard Friot, Puissances du salariat. Emploi et protection sociale à la française (if you happen to read French).

  • I think it’s important that the right to strike is an individual right under the constitution in France. This means that, although union density levels are low, when unions call for protest and strikes and their call resonates with the workers, the workers have the fullest entitlement to exercise their right not work, including for a political purpose. They cannot be fired or in any way penalized for doing so. In Canada, in contrast, the right to strike, as part of freedom of association, is not yet affirmed as a fundamental Charter right and, if it is to be so affirmed, I would be very surprised if it included a right to strike over an issue which was not directly related to terms and conditions of employment, rather than issue of wider political significance.

  • Actually French unions represent very few workers compared to Sweden, B.C. or Quebec. As Christopher points out union density is low in France. However, in the past unions such as the railway workers have played an important role in winning battles that allowed non-union workers to make important gains. The current action is very strategic focusing on cutting off supplies of gasoline. The strikers have the support of nearly 70 percent of the population, repeat 70 percent.
    France is a Republic, and the sense is widespread that all citizens are equal, and endowed with citizenship rights. It is understood that authority rests with the citizens, and not with the government. The Fifth Republic was created in 1958 by de Gaulle. It favours a strong president. In the past, social issues were addressed in such a way that workers did not have to put pensions, health care, and other issues on the table with employers. They were settled politically, and all citizens benefited. The educational system was the envy of Europe, though it has declined. It was free of tuition from kindergarden to the PH.D until recently. Not surprisingly people can read, write, and discuss political issues intelligently.
    When the governing majority gets arrogant, then opponents take to the streets, as in May 68, against de Gaulle, and today against Sarko. The population knows that protest works: governments have to listen to the people, not just fake it, or ignore opinion like Harper.
    Here in Canada consent of the governed is sort of meaningless; we elect parliament, and parliament sustains the government or withdraws support (are we even sure parliamentarians understand this, witness the Ignatieff Liberals in coalition with the Conservatives while denying it).
    Canadian citizens are not so much at a loss to know what to do when faced with a tyrant acting in character, as without conscious understanding of a history of protest leading to change. Of course such actions have occurred in our history, but our parliamentary tradition is very strong.
    The amazing thing for me about the French action is the role being played by high school students in shutting down schools, and demonstrating with workers. The level of understanding of what is at stake in the withdrawal of hard earned rights is far superior to that in Canada. The young people want to take the place of retired people, and eventually retire themselves. The population understands that pensions are transfer payments, and need not be funded. Note however that the right are playing the same cards as here, we have a deficit that needs to be brought down, etc. The print media are incomparably better in France. Even the official television news coverage (France 2) for years a running joke, is now more balanced than the English CBC, which unhappily has become little more than a home for right wing commentary, with little balance, mimicking the sad performance of the National Post and the Globe .

  • great p[oints Duncan-

    What a difference a channel and a tunnel can make. The UK cutting 500K civil servants, evicting 200K residents from London because of social transfer cuts and unaffordable housing. Yet nothing even remotely measuring up to the French display of solidarity.

    It truly is a historical spectacle for the books- I do hope the UK can mount a backlash- but so far not a peep in comparative terms to France.

    Amazing what guides the herd.

  • Chris,

    Any connection to Rob?

  • Rentier Fungicide

    I think that the French labour movement is strong because it has decent electoral representation at the level of the national assembly (although French mercantilist traditions may have something to do with it too). Because France has, if not actual proportional representation any more, at least the equivalent of a single transferable ballot via the “scrutin majoritaire à deux tours”, that is to say a two-round, first-past-the-post poll. So nobody can win a riding with just 33 or 35 percent of the vote. As a result, in a significant number of constituencies, electoral success depends on left and/or labour support, while in Canada even strong labour support by 30 percent of the electorate often goes unreflected in political representation.

  • Thanks for this interesting post and thread. The present movement is inspiring and instructive for an additional reason that no one has mentioned yet: it is taking place in spite of the fact that the mainstream electoral Left (PS allied with the PCF and Verts) has played a marginal role and — due to its record during its recent many years in office — has very little credibility around confronting the corporate/neoliberal agenda in general, or around retirement issues in particular. Even the leaderships of the main trade-union confederations (CGT, CFDT, etc) have been playing catch-up and have maintained their (very fragile) unity largely due to pressure from the rank and file and activist sectors within their unions and the strength of public opinion. This overall pressure “from below” has been nurtured, shaped and mediated by an impressive range of more radical smaller trade-union bodies (SUD, G10 Solidaires, etc), activist/thinktank associations like ATTAC and Fondation Copernic, widely followed alternative media outlets such as Médiapart, and the party/political radical Left (especially the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, whost postal-worker spokesperson Olivier Besancenot consistently ranks among the most popular political figures in the country). It is this range of forces that have been able to sustain the impressive series of protest and strike movements France has seen since late 1995. It bears repeating that they have been able to do so in spite of, and not because of, the role of the mainstream Left and trade-union leadership, which have tended to accompany the overall accommodation to neoliberalism and erosion of democratic institutions (particularly noteworthy in the already authoritarian Fifth Republic as Duncan Cameron mentions) that we have seen within the Social Democratic Left across the industrialized West.

  • The allegedly low union density of France is something of an exaggeration. The great majority of workers are, unlike in Canada, covered by collective agreements and can elect members of works councils without joining a union. Joining a union is a measure of engagement. While in decline, unions clearly still have a lot of sway among workers.

  • @Rentier Fungicide

    Isn’t the left having a decent electoral representation more of a symptom of having a strong labour movement than a cause? I’m sure having political leaders on your side helps your cause, but you need a strong movement to get them elected in, regardless of the system. Switching to proportional representation in Canada, for example, would lead to more NDP seats, but I’d be very surprised if that would lead to a commensurate increase in the passion for the labour movement in Canada. I just think that movements generally come from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

  • I suggest that social order is a priority in Canada. That’s why Canadians supported Trudeau’s suspension of civil liberties to maintain social order. Unions must be much more subtle in Canada than in France. Unions must skillfully portray themselves as being cooperative and reasonable – not irrationally passionate. Emotional demonstrations don’t seem to find public support or empathy in Canada.

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