Besides the record-breaking cold temperatures, the big news this week in France is the grève — the strike — at Air France. Essentially a “strike about the right to strike,” it was called by the unions representing Air France’s pilots, cabin crews, and ground crews to protest legislation that would impact their right to walk off the job. Now, you should know up front that workers’ rights are a big deal in France: the 35-hour workweek, generous unemployment benefits, and strong union representation are ingrained in the national consciousness here. As a matter of fact, the right to strike (“le droit de grève“) is actually enshrined in the French Constitution of 1946. Nevertheless, since 2008, railway and bus employees have been subject to a regulation to ensure “the continuity of public service” in ground transportation by requiring 48-hour notice of the intent to strike and the provision of “minimum service” during the strike. Last month, the Assemblée Nationale passed legislation expanding this regulation to include air travel as well, and the Senate is expected to take it up later this month. That, in a nutshell, is why the departures board at Charles-de-Gaulle was lit up in red today.
When the strike started yesterday, 85 percent of Air France’s long-haul flights and 80 percent of its European flights were still operating. Today, however, the airline could only guarantee 50 percent of its long-haul flights and 70 percent of its European flights. There were long lines and frustration at Air France customer service desks, of course, but I haven’t seen any reports of overtly angry reaction from French travelers. (The guy complaining in the video above, by the way, is clearly Canadian.) It’s almost as if the French penchant for nonchalance is at its finest under these circumstances: “Yes, we may grumble and wave our hands and roll our eyes, but we aren’t going to get too worked up. It’s a grève … it’s expected … it’s what we do …”
The French do indeed have an international reputation for going on strike. Take, for example, the events of May 1968, the largest general strike in world history, involving over 11,000,000 workers; the 1995 public sector strikes, paralyzing the transportation infrastructure for two whole months; and the 2010 farmers’ strike, memorable for all those tractors driving around the streets of Paris. It’s an impressive résumé.
While those few examples are just from the last half century, the grève has a long history in France. The right to strike was instituted in 1864, twenty years before the right to unionize. As a result, French workers learned to be combattive for their rights a whole generation before they had the right to organize into groups and do it en masse. French historian Stéphane Sirot says this explains why, in France, you show your strength by striking before you negotiate, as opposed to striking after the negotiations break down. It’s historic. It’s tradition.
The French Lesson
So, the French are experts at it, but why do they call it a “grève“? Grève literally means a sandy or gravelly riverbank or beach, after all, and that doesn’t sound very revolutionary. As it turns out, the use of “grève” for a work stoppage is the result of geography, economics, and habit.
Here in Paris, there used to be a grève on the right bank of the Seine near the Hôtel de Ville, just across from the Île de la Cité. At the time, it served as the city’s most important port, where boats could unload merchandise for the markets located not far away at Les Halles. Because it was a busy commercial hub, this Place de Grève also served as a gathering point for men seeking work and the bosses who were looking to hire them. The expression “être en grève” (“to be on the riverbank”) came to mean “unemployed and seeking work.” In the 19th Century, when workers stopped work to protest abysmal working conditions, they returned to the same place. “Se mettre en grève” (“to place oneself on the riverbank”) then came to mean “to go on strike.” Today, “se mettre en grève” has been replaced by the more common expression “faire grève.”
So there you have it, dear readers: in just one post, the story of what’s happening this week at Charles-de-Gaulle, why that kind of thing happens all the time in France, and why the French expression for walking off the job used to mean looking for one.
Now, if you’re flying into or out of Paris this week …
Bonne chance et bon voyage !
February 9 postscript — In a nice lesson for Alanis Morissette about situational irony, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Front de Gauche, wanted to be at Charles-de-Gaulle today to support the Air France strike, but he couldn’t get back to Paris in time because … wait for it … his flight was canceled.
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved