French transport strikes bear a “striking” resemblance with Hollywood blockbusters. Unlike Star Wars episodes, they are not numbered, but they are released at similar intervals, draw large crowds, and you get easily lost between sequels and prequels.
This year’s episode seems particularly serious. If the trade unions don’t even respect the unwritten rule of letting the French travel home for Christmas across the country, it is mainly because they want to move the fight against an unloved reform of the pension plan to a different semantic level. Like the yellow jackets, who grounded their protests initially on the disgust with increasing taxes and eroding purchase power, but transformed into an “anti-system” movement, the strikes of December 2019 are no longer about financial details, but about class struggle.
A longer excerpt from a text I posted in these columns two and half years ago, just before the legislative elections that gave La République en Marche a landslide majority in the Assemblée Nationale, may serve as a useful re-cap for the underlying causes of the current convulsions (apologies for the extensive self-citation!):
Each time the trade unions have managed to reactivate the fear of the dismantling of the ‘French social model’ – the French emotional knee-jerk equivalent of the ‘NHS’ – the government in place has been unable to overcome the discrepancy between radical ideological principles and practical economic constraints, between the desirable (in the absolute) and the feasible (within the social-democratic, but capitalistic default setting of contemporary Europe).
Unlike their German counterparts, the French unions have always been characterised by ideological pluralism rather than unitary organisation according to industrial sectors. This automatically results in fierce competition for membership among them, which in turn leads to rhetoric grandstanding in negotiations and over-bidding each other in drwaing ‘red lines’. Trade unionism has always been a minority movement in France, but it has successfully claimed the moral right and duty to speak for the ‘unenlightened’ majority (and take the entire country hostage in their fight).
The ideological roadmap of French trade unionism was graved in stone in 1906 in the so-called ‘Charter of Amiens’ (the capital of Picardy which, in a nice coincidence, happens to be Macron’s birthplace).
This manifesto whose radical anti-capitalism has never really been put into question has deeply impregnated the language of French social relations. Its major semantic component is distrust. Managers and even self-made entrepreneurs are by definition class enemies. A company’s overarching goal can only be profit maximisation by ruthless exploitation of workers. Compromise is treason. Accordingly, German style co-determination practices are looked upon with defiance. Which is understandable, given all the negative connotations conveyed by the vocabulary in vigour. Unlike the German ‘Arbeitgeber’ (= ‘providers of work’), the French term ‘patronat’ reduces this specific social group to its purely hierarchical dimension of domination. The etymology of ‘patron’ reveals of course its religious, medieval roots, inevitably smelling of pre-industrial authority structures and inducing neo-feudal perception and behaviour patterns. Not exactly what you would call ‘social partnership’.
These are no doubt the reasons why in 1998 the French employers’ federation changed its name from CNPF (where ‘P’ stands for ‘Patronat’) to MEDEF (where it is replaced by ‘Entreprises’).
Unfortunately, its representatives have had trouble changing their own rhetoric accordingly, and their internal power struggles often lead to the same kind of stupid over-bidding as on the trade union’s side.
In a lovely compendium on French-German stereotypes and contrasts published twenty years ago, Ingo Kolboom very rightly recalled in his contribution about labour relations in both countries that ‘words are more than just designations; they are complex interpretations of reality, transformations, repressions, and projections, the support of desires and social strategies’ (R. Picht et al., Fremde Freunde, Munich, 1997, p. 268).
France offers a linguistic and cultural environment in which trade unions simply have no choice but systematically base their actions on an unwavering presumption of contempt (‘mépris’) with regard to employers’ attitudes towards employees. Which in turn explains that strikes or similar radical actions, rather than being the ultimate means of struggle once negotiations have failed or justified requests have remained unanswered, are in fact a pre-condition of negotiation. They are called with the aim of increasing bargaining power and they inevitably raise the face-saving stakes on all sides by lifting discussions from pragmatic deal making to the level of moral indignation.
At that time, there were signs that Emmanuel Macron would try hard to take the trade unions on board of his reform cruise. But he didn’t. On the contrary: the first half of his mandate has been characterized by the vertical, technocratic government that is almost inevitable within the centralised framework of the French Fifth Republic. He has not managed (or not wanted) to shift the semantics of labour relations from the lexical field of class struggle to a Monnet-inspired new vocabulary of common interest and joint effort. The massive 2019 Christmas strikes are a price to pay for this.
The surprisingly large popular support of the strikes – still at 51% this Sunday – reveals an inconsistency in French political life that remains, after three decades in this country, deeply bewildering to me. During the five years of each government mandate, the French behave as if a significant majority of them were in favour of leftist policies. Anti-capitalists on whom a right-wing government has been imposed against their will. Then they go to vote and cast their ballots for the “neo-liberal” and conservative parties they were supposed to be entirely fed up with.
The first round of the presidential election is the one moment of truth where everyone votes in favour of their own beliefs and convictions. In 2017, the five candidates on the right of the political spectrum – including Macron, who had already been identified as former banker and potential “president of the rich” – earned 70.94% of the popular vote. The strongest candidate of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came in fourth, defeated even by scandal-ridden Fillon.
This being said, we’re only at halftime of Macron’s five-year term, and it is of course impossible to predict anything for 2022. But it is legitimate to express, already now, serious doubts about the conversion of all these yellow and red anti-system protests into a consistent vote.