Grève générale: Work, Resistance, and Violence in France
“I have so many places I want to take you,” she said to me, pointing to her gas meter. “But I’ve only got 200km worth of gas left in my tank, and all the gas stations are closed today.”
We were traveling through southern France with an old friend of mine who lives in Perpignan, who once spent a summer living with me in Brooklyn while she interned at a production company in Manhattan. During that summer, I helped to introduce her to the best of what New York had to offer, and ten years later she was returning the favor, driving us around to show us the beauty of the land where she was born and raised.
“As you know, the trains are down,” she continued. “The power plants were also shut down yesterday. I don’t know how long the strikes will continue, but I just hope the gas stations open up soon.”
It wasn’t just her words, but the casual and accepting nature in which she said them, which really drove it home for me how accustomed and accepting the French tend to be towards general strikes, or as the French say, la grève générale. Her words came out in a combination of frustration, amusement, and resignation, and while she spoke I couldn’t help but imagine how the average person in the United States would react if they couldn’t access any gas stations for a day or more.
Over the past four months, France has exploded in a series of strikes and violent protests over the proposed labor reform law, or Loi travail, that President François Hollande‘s Socialist government is trying to pass.
And while the strikes have been covered somewhat by the French media, overall the international coverage of these events–especially in the United States–has been sorely lacking to the point where many are referring to it as a ‘media blackout’. Alternative international media outlets such as teleSUR, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and RT have been reporting on the violence, but even those outlets have almost solely focused on the protests themselves, rather than on an accurate understanding of the issues and history behind these strikes.
For the past month, Rhyd Wildermuth and I have traveled throughout both southern and northern France, spending several days at a time in four separate French cities. Throughout our travels, I have been witnessing and educating myself as to both what is occurring in France and why it is occurring. What I have learned and observed about these complex events is as follows:
France is no stranger to general strikes, in stark contrast to the United States which saw its last significant general strike in 1946. And unlike American workers, who often work multiple jobs for long hours for low pay and few protections, French workers enjoy a long list of labor rights:
- a 35-hour work week before 25% overtime kicks in,
- a mandated 10-hour maximum workday with breaks ever 4.5 hours,
- 2.5 days of paid leave per month worked (which adds up to five weeks of paid leave per year),
- eleven paid public holidays per year,
- sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave per child,
- strict protections from being fired without just cause,
- and generous severance payments if one is laid off due to their job becoming obsolete.
These rights are a direct result of both the historic and current willingness of the French to fight, often violently and in defiance of the law, for protections that they consider to be an integral part of their way of life.
The modern-day workers’ rights moment in France initiated with a series of general strikes in 1936. These involved more than a million workers, and led to an agreement known as the ‘Matignon Agreements’. These agreements guaranteed French workers the legal right to strike, a 40-hour mandated work week before overtime, two weeks’ paid vacation and the right to collectively bargain.
The second round of workers’ rights that the French enjoy today were won in the midst of the May 1968 crisis. Known as the ‘Grenelle agreements’, out of the civil unrest came a 34-hour work week (down from 40), the establishment of trade unions within every industry in France, and protections that prevented workers from being fired without just cause.
Since the ’68 unrest, the workweek had been briefly raised to 39 hours and then dropped again to 35, where it remains today. In 1995, proposed work reforms initiated by newly-elected right wing President Jacques Chirac, which included restricting the right to retire at age 55, were met with general strikes involving more than 6 million strike days (calculated by the number of days that each worker struck).
As a result, the proposed reforms were retracted. In 2006, President Chirac’s government attempted to pass an ’employment contract’ law which would have allowed employers to easily fire workers without reason within the first two years of their employment, but the proposed law was again rescinded in the face of massive protests.
A year later, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to reduce retirement benefits for public employees engaged in hazardous professions, and was again met with massive protests. And once again, the proposal was rescinded. Since then, France’s code du travail has remained strong and secure until early this year.
The Current Controversy:
The new labor reform law, introduced in February and dubbed the “El Khomri law” after French labor minister Myriam El Khomri, aims to do away with many worker rights including reducing overtime for those who work more than 35 hours a week, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire workers without just cause. These changes were proposed with the intention of reducing public spending, reducing unemployment, and making France’s labor market more flexible.
The law was met with strong public opposition, starting with the “Nuit debout” movement. Nuit debout, which has been compared to both Occupy and the Indignados movement of Spain, began in March and has quickly spread to over thirty cities in France. Not only is the anger over the law itself, but unlike the attempted reforms of the Chirac and Sarkozy governments, which were right-wing, the fact that the left-wing Socialist party has proposed these reforms is seen as a harsh betrayal.
Paris’ ‘Place de la Republique’ was occupied by thousands of Nuit debout supporters for twelve days straight, and the movement received a high level of public support.
A month later, after facing opposition from several MPs French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decided to push the labor reform law through the lower house of the Parliament without a vote, using a rare provision in the French Constitution to bypass the normal democratic route.
In response, France has exploded in protest, with a coordinated shutdown of public industries that has continued for several months now.
The majority of the strikes in France are being coordinated by the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which is one of five major trade union confederations in France and arguably the most powerful. The country’s largest trade union confederacy in terms of voting power and the second-largest in terms of membership, the CGT has been integral in securing workers’ rights in France for nearly a century, having brokered both the reforms of ’36 and ’68 and playing a significant role in every general strike since then. The CGT openly supported Hollande during the last election and encouraged members to vote for Hollande, so the feelings of betrayal are particularly strong amongst the CGT membership.
Other trade union confederations involved in and/or supporting the strikes include SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques), CFTC ( Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), and FO (Force Ouvrière), while the more moderate CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) is mostly in support of the proposed labor reforms.
Over the past few months, these strikes have shut down several major industries throughout France, some for several days at a time. In the time that Rhyd and I have been traveling through France, there have been rolling strikes involving the national railway system (SNCF), the local metro in Paris, several bus systems, air traffic controllers in several cities including Paris and Marseilles, gas stations, and nuclear electric plants.
The largest concentration of strikes had been announced for June 14th, in part with the intention of disrupting the Euro 2016 football tournament that is taking place throughout several cities in France, set to attract upwards of three million tourists.
June 14th was also the date that the upper house of Parliament was set to start deliberations on the proposed reforms.
Among those who announced they will strike were the following industries:
- Transport, including buses, taxis, national railways, air traffic controllers, and maritime workers;
- Public service workers, including those working in libraries, post offices, sanitation, and non-emergency fire department and healthcare workers;
- Private sector workers, including those working in banks, hotels, private transportation, media, fashion, and the mail-order industry;
- Educational workers, including those working in preschool through high school.
On the Ground: Arles, May 23-26:
Upon our arrival in Arles, signs of resistance and organizing around the general strikes were immediately evident. Nearly everywhere we looked, posters hung on billboards, street poles, and mail boxes, both expressing anger at the Loi travail as a whole as well as specific calls for demonstrations on set dates. Both gatherings organized by the Nuit debout movement as well as protests organized by smaller, local groups were occurring in Arles on a near-daily basis.
Even more prevalent than the posters were countless stickers, plastered everywhere one could imagine, ranging from those from trade unions to much more explicitly leftist and anarchist propaganda.
Walking around Arles, which is a rather quiet, sleepy, Medieval-era town best known as the later residence of Vincent van Gogh and the subject of many of his later paintings, one could constantly hear both residents and tourists discussing the shutdowns and the protests that were occurring both in Arles and throughout France.
Every word I heard from the locals was in opposition to the Loi travail and in support of the uprisings, with one woman ironically remarking that although she supported the strikes, she hoped the transit issues would be resolved in time for her upcoming month-long vacation.
The buses and trains both went on strike on two consecutive days while we were there, but altogether the effects they had on travel were minor.
Perpignan, May 27- May 30:
Unlike Arles, Perpignan is much more of an urban center, a city of just over 100,000 residents which serves as the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France. Perpignan has a reputation for being a right-wing town with a significant National Front presence, but when we arrived the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout was much more prevalent and obvious than any right-wing elements.
On our second day in Perpignan, I stepped off the bus in the centre-ville and literally walked right into a CGT rally taking place in one of the major town squares. The square was filled with various tents which were distributing industry-specific information about the Loi travail and the various forms of resistance against it. In one corner was a stage with a band playing, catty-corner to the stage was a tent serving beer and sandwiches for only 2€ each, and the atmosphere was unusually light-hearted and festive considering that there were several transit-related strikes taking place that very day.
Further down the main boulevard in Perpignan that same afternoon, several Nuit debout folks were flyering in support of the latest round of strikes while also handing out information about their weekly meetings. A few blocks away, several punk-looking activists were rather covertly using what appeared to be wheat or rice paste to affix Nuit debout posters to any and all available surfaces. Nearly everyone who walked by them voiced their support for their presence on the street and/or the strike in general, with several folks erupting in chants as they walked by.
Toulouse, May 31 – June 2:
While physical organizing and leftist presence was more evident in Perpignan, the expressive side of the recent uprisings was much more evident in Toulouse, which lies approximately two hours northwest of Perpignan and is a major city with a population of over a million residents. Instead of the resistance being dominated by the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout, the resistance in Toulouse was much more a product of the people themselves.
Block after block throughout the city was covered in posters, graffiti, and stickers. One could not look in any direction without coming across an uncountable number of messages, both printed and scrawled by hand, not only protesting the labor reforms but announcing daily meetings as well as the nationwide strikes planned for June 14th.
At the same time, the city was gearing up for its role as one of the hosts of the Euro2016 tournament, which the strikes were set to interrupt, and the tension between police and activists was evident.
Rennes, June 3 – June 13:
Despite the wide variety of people, protest, and propaganda that we had observed and witnessed in the previous three cities, nothing had quite prepared us for Rennes.
Unlike the previous cities we had visited, Rennes is in the north, in the heart of Bretagne, where hostility towards French authority has both simmered and exploded for hundreds of years. Rennes is a distinctly Leftist and anarchist city, with a deeply-rooted Breton independence movement, and many of the residents here are quick to tell outsiders that “Bretagne is not France”.
The Breton language, though endangered, is still spoken in Rennes, and over the past few decades a concerted effort has been made to revive the Breton language, much to the chagrin of the French government. Dual-language schools are common in Rennes, and many of the street signs and informational placards are in both French and Breton.
And those dual-language signs were pretty much the only surfaces in town that were spared, and the messages went far beyond protesting the Loi travail. Nearly every square inch of space was covered in protest signs, anti-police and anti-capitalist stickers and graffiti, posters and flyers and every type of leftist propaganda imaginable. It was obvious that in Rennes, the anger is not just aimed at Loi travail, but at capitalism itself.
There was also an pervasive element in Rennes that we had not seen in force in any of the other cities we had traveled to – the presence of the federal police, or gendarmerie. We had seen a few in Toulouse due to the upcoming Euro2016 games, but the gendarmerie presence in Rennes was much more prevalent, despite the fact that Toulouse is a much larger city in Rennes.
But their presence was not without reason. For in Rennes, nearly every single bank in town has been smashed.
Later on, we learned from our host that violence has been breaking out in the city on a near-daily basis, with leftists and anarchists clashing with police throughout the centre-ville. Protests and demonstrations have been banned on account of the violence, but that does not deter the leftists. They are out daily, in force, facing police violence, withstanding clubs and pepper-spray, and many end up in the emergency room. And yet the next day, they are out again.
In Rennes, the anarchists not only have taken over several public squares, but when the federal police drive them out, they protest such actions with a call for a ‘re-enchantment of place’. Messages of love and inspiration jump out from every wall, every signpost, every street corner, every bathroom door. It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who pays attention that the folks here fight not just out of anger, not just against the Loi travail, but because they truly believe that another world is possible.
And while the gendarmerie may be out in full force, it’s obvious that they do not hold the true power in this city, especially in the hearts and minds of the citizens here, whether leftist or not. Based on the comments, gestures, and facial expressions of the citizens, utter disdain for the presence of the gendarmerie is nearly unanimous, regardless of age or social class. They may be feared by some, but they are not respected by most.
Unable to contain the resistance and violence in Rennes, protests and demonstrations have been banned until further notice, a ban which included the annual Gay Pride festivities on the first weekend in June. But even such a drastic step had next to no effect. Despite the prohibition, folks came out for Gay Pride, and amongst the most visible presences at the festival were the trade union confederations, even the one that is not participating in the general strikes. Hundreds of people, gay and straight alike, attended the festivities despite the ban and without fear or hesitation.
They danced and celebrated in joy and merriment, and the gendarmerie simply stood back and allow it to occur, knowing full well that to try to break it up would only result in violence and further demonstrations. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the gendarmerie, it was obvious that while they had the arms and the weapons, they knew full well who actually held the power.
Grève générale: Rennes, June 14:
Despite the numerous pleas and attempted actions on the part of the French government to avoid a nationwide strike on June 14th, the trade union confederations held their ground and made it clear that they would not back down. And as promised, on the morning of the 14th, as the Senate started to deliberate the provisions of the Loi travail, striking workers held demonstrations throughout every major city in France.
When I woke up the morning of the 14th in Rennes, and the first thing I found in my email box was an email from the US Embassy, advising me to stay away from all protests and demonstrations related to the general strikes. I laughed and headed downtown to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which had been renamed the ‘Place du Peuple‘ bu the Nuit debout movement, where the strikers were set to gather at 11am.
When I arrived at the plaza, I saw that police had fenced off the entire exterior of the plaza. I laughed again, knowing from what I witnessed at Gay Pride the week before that such an action would have absolutely no effect.
And the fences sure didn’t stop them; they simply took the streets instead. For over four hours, strikers and their supporters marched throughout the city by the thousands, back and forth, over and over, occasionally stopping for breaks and then starting right up again. For a town with a population of just over 200,000 people, and despite everything I had seen up to that point, the sheer size of the manifestation left me in utter shock.
As I marched and took photos and at times simply stood there staring in amazement, I constantly checked my phone for updates from the rest of the country. And what I was witnessing in Rennes was being echoed all throughout France. Flights were cancelled nationwide as both pilots and air traffic controllers went on strike. Buses and trains throughout the country were stopped in their tracks. In Paris, taxi drivers blocked the streets and the Eiffel Tower was even closed for the day. Violence between police and protesters also erupted in Paris, although in Rennes the police merely stood by and blocked off roads leading to the old city as strikers marched down the main drags.
And as opposed to America, where even temporary blockages of highways often result in anger and threats from commuters, those who were inconvenienced in Rennes that day were overall extremely supportive despite the fact that they were sitting in cars or buses for long periods of time while protestors took to the streets. Commuters on buses waved, folks in cars honked their support, and only a very few expressed any sort of anger or grievance at the strikers. It was widely understood that the temporary inconvenience that commuters were experiencing was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of what the strikers were fighting for.
Work and the Way of Life:
“Now, when we check out, look at the cashier, and tell me what you notice, what’s different,” Rhyd said to me as we shopped for groceries at a Carrefour market in Arles. “When you figure it out, its going to blow your mind.”
It was only my second full day in France, but already I was blown away by the various differences between the French way of life and what I was accustomed to in America. Checking out our groceries, I closely studied the cashier, a young woman with what I perceived as an unusually pleasant demeanor for someone working in a grocery store. And perhaps it was my tendency to concentrate on the small details instead of the obvious, and perhaps it was still being distracted and overwhelmed by the food I was surrounded by, but when we exited the store I still had not caught on to whatever it was that Rhyd was trying to get me to notice.
“I think I missed it,” I said as we walked out. “Unless it was the super-cheap flasks of nice liquor hanging behind the cashier’s head.”
And then as I turned back to glance again, I noticed it at the exact moment that the words came out of his mouth.
“They’re sitting,” he said with a wicked grin on his face. “Retail cashiers in France are all allowed to sit.”
I stared back into the store in shock, overwhelmed with disbelief and anger all the same as I noticed the comfy, padded chair that the woman who checked us out was sitting in. Immediately I thought of the long hours on their feet that Americans in the retail industry are forced to endure, hours that often lead to chronic pain, sciatica, and irreversible foot and ankle damage. And then I thought of my own circumstances, as someone who is unable to work retail jobs due to chronic pain and sciatica, and who lives in poverty partly as a result. I looked back at the cashier, realizing that I could actually work that kind of job in the United States if I was allowed to sit, and immediately felt a rush of anger rise up inside me.
And over the next few weeks, I went into countless grocery stores and other retail outlets, and found the same – nearly everyone I saw behind a cash register was sitting down. Not only are they sitting down, but ringing up your groceries is all they do. They do not even attempt to empty your basket onto the conveyor belt for you. That’s your job. They also do not even attempt to bag your groceries for you. That’s also your job. They sit, they ring up what you buy, and they make at least €9,67 an hour doing it, or around $10.92 in American dollars, in addition to all of the benefits that I elaborated on earlier in this article.
At one point, while checking out at a Carrefour in Rennes, I got into a short conversation with the cashier, who spoke a decent amount of English. When she asked me what I thought of French grocery stores, I mentioned to her that in the United States, all retail cashiers must stand, and she looked at me like I had two heads.
“That’s inhumane,” she said to me in disbelief. “That’s torture.”
“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.
The fact that she referred to the fact that American retail workers must stand as “torture” carried an additionally weighted meaning to me, as I mulled on the starkly different cultural attitudes that the French and Americans hold about work.
In America, work is fetishized to the point where Presidential hopefuls stress the need to work longer hours as a benchmark of their campaigns. In contrast with France, where ever single bank in Rennes has had its windows smashed in protest of the labor reforms, American citizens and politicians alike often express little support for even the slightest of work reform such as an increase in the minimum wage. The United States is only one of two nations in the entire world that does not federally mandate paid maternity leave, and although polls show that a majority of citizens support paid maternity leave, far too many also support politicians who oppose such reforms.
One could ponder various arguments as to why these differences are so prominent. For example, the United States, as a nation that was stolen and settled by Pilgrims and other Protestant-derived factions, has embraced the Calvinist ideology around the virtue of work since its earliest days. France, on the other hand, had a long history of intolerance towards and forced expulsions of Calvinist Protestants. And while the Huguenots were eventually granted equal rights as citizens after the French Revolution, France has been much more significantly shaped by culturally Catholic attitudes than Calvinist ideology throughout its history.
These differing histories are reflected in the cultural attitudes that define the two nations. America’s most famous (and most insidious) ideology, known as the ‘American Dream’, not only stresses the importance of work but falsely promises success to anyone who works hard enough. France, on the other hand, is a culture that has always put great value in ‘la belle vie‘, the good life, and has a long history of valuing health and happiness over the supposed merits of working oneself to the bone. French culture emphasizes the need for rest, relaxation and self-care, to the point that running one’s lawn mower on a Sunday is a violation of municipal codes in many cities, as the loud noise is considered to be disruptive to those who wish to rest and take it easy.
But while those points are significant and valid, perhaps an aspect of how such differences are shaped is as simple as the power of words themselves, specifically the power which is held and reflected in the etymological meaning of the word ‘work’ as it is expressed in the French language as opposed to English.
The English word ‘work’ comes from the Old English weorc, meaning ‘something done’, which itself comes from the Germanic word werkan, which derives from the Indo-European root werg, meaning ‘to do’.
In French, however, the word travail derives from the Medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning ‘instrument of torture’, which itself derives from the Old Latin words tres and palus, meaning ‘three stakes’.
Let me repeat that again for effect: the term ‘work’ in French literally means an instrument of torture. And in a civilized society, nobody would dare consider torture to be a virtue.
The cashier at Carrefour was absolutely correct when she characterized standing for hours at a time for no reason as ‘torture’, but its a form of torture that most American workers accept without much thought or question.
One thing that is quite apparent after spending nearly a month in France is that French workers are not nearly as miserable as American workers are, and most don’t seem miserable at all. They do not hate their jobs as Americans do, regardless of profession. The smiles that one sees on their faces are not forced. Their kindness and courtesy is not an act. They are truly happy to help you and to serve you. They do their job with pride and they do their jobs well. Even the employees at McDonalds carry themselves with a level of pride and satisfaction that I have never seen amongst fast-food workers in the United States.
The attitudes of workers in France is a strong testament to the belief that if you treat workers well, if they make enough to not only survive but thrive, and if they are given ample time off and have the opportunity for regular leisure time with friends and family, they are simply better workers. And when the workers are happy, the customers are happy too. Everyone wins.
Closing Observations: La belle lutte
“So we call these things demonstrations, right?…Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It’s only a demonstration, it’s not the actual thing that we’re gonna do. It’s just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that’s what you had to do. …All you have to do is get in the streets, and we’ll shame the people in power.” – Boots Riley
The ‘spectacle’ that Riley refers to in the quote originated with the tactics of the New Left in the United States, born out of a fusion between the politics of the Frankfurt School and the various American hippie movements of the ’60s and ’70s. One can fairly argue (and many have) that despite their good intentions, the New Left abandoned and/or destroyed any remaining shred of effective and militant radicalism in the United States, at least in terms of the strategies and actions of college-educated white folks whose ideologies and actions have historically drowned out those of marginalized peoples.
This shift arguably set the stage for the loss of power on the part of the Left and the severe shift to the Right that the American political spectrum has undergone in the last four decades. The idea that citizens can simply shame the people in power is still a dominant ideology in both liberal and radical circles, and despite the complete and utter ineffectiveness of such a strategy, such strategies are still undertaken and lauded as though they actually produce results.
The New Left in Europe, on the other hand, birthed the May ’68 uprisings in France in addition to many other uprisings across Europe and set the tone for the philosophies and tactics that are still being successfully staged here in the present day. The rallying cries of the Situationist Internation set the stage for a movement that nearly toppled the French government, and its reverberations were not only never forgotten, but consistently built upon while never losing their militant edge. The Situationists utilized spectacle as well, but did so in addition, not as a replacement for general strikes and violent confrontations. In short, they never forgot the true intent of the demonstration.
In observing what is present and effective here in France, one also notices what is absent, especially in contrast to how citizens attempt to both institute and fight proposed reforms in the United States. Amidst all the waves of general strikes throughout France, the marches, the protests, the graffiti, the rallies, the acts of property destruction against banks, there are two things that are notable absent: lobbying and petitions. The idea that one can enact change within the system, which is still the dominant strategy of the American ‘left’, is not only all but absent in France but truly laughable as far as the workers and strikers here are concerned.
While Americans sign petitions protesting the Wall Street bailouts, the French simply smash the banks. While Americans bemoan the ever-increasing decimation of unions in their country, the French trade union confederations are arguably the most powerful political force in the country. And while a good percentage of the American public is still convinced that they can vote their way out of the effects of late-stage capitalism, the French know that the only way to enact true change is to take it into their own hands.
For the French, it’s a fight to the end, and a violent fight at that. But their own history clearly demonstrates that only by fighting will they succeed, only by fighting will they retain what they have successful fought for in the past, and those rights are so deeply cherished that they will most likely keep shutting down industry until the government once again cedes to their demands.
Its a fight, but as many are quick to point out here, its ‘the good fight’, that will hopefully result in protecting and retaining a way of life that Americans could only dream of.
An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living on occupied Chinook territory in a city popularly known as Portland, Oregon. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, and has been interacting with a various collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks, creates an assortment of art and pottery, and writes for The Wild Hunt.