It’s springtime in France, and it’s also strike time. I’m just setting off on a trip across the country by train and I’ve had to adjust my travel dates because of the rail strikes – at least they put out a schedule.
This spring/summer the transportation workers are planning to strike two days out of every five from April through June with threats to go through August, if necessary.
When the French are unhappy about something, they don’t keep quiet – they draw attention to their cause. And there are three main ways they do this: Demonstrations, Strikes, and (if things get really desperate) Bossnappings…
Demonstrations – Manifestations
The French love to march in the streets. If they have a grievance, they get together, make signs, and demonstrate. They even join marches that have nothing to do with them or their situation. They just support everyone’s right to protest (and maybe they like parades).
These demonstrations are known as manifestations in France, and they are definitely part of the culture. They are often about social issues: against war, against racism, etc., but they can also be for workers’ rights or to show displeasure with the government.
The most well-known of these manifestations started the French Revolution back in 1789. When the people were fed up with their government, they took to the streets to make their unhappiness known – and they certainly did! They overthrew the king and formed a Republic.
Their new government was founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment movement and the belief that the only legitimate power lies with the people. So when the people aren’t happy with their elected officials and they take to the streets, the government pays attention. There is always someone there to take an official headcount so those in power will know exactly how popular these views are. (They don’t want another revolution on their hands.)
With all these unhappy people marching in the streets, things can sometimes get out of hand. Throughout France’s history there have been many violent demonstrations. Up until the 1920s, deaths during protests were not uncommon and the army was often called in to bring order. Thankfully, today’s manifestations are usually more peaceful events.
Strikes – Grèves
To be on strike is called être en grève in French. This expression comes from the Place de Grève (now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) in Paris along the River Seine. The word grève referred to a sandy area where cargo boats would pull in. It was where unemployed men would gather to get work loading or unloading them.
At that time, être en grève meant to be without work. The meaning of the expression changed around the first part of the nineteenth century when workers who felt that their bosses were taking advantage of them decided to stop working. They basically made themselves unemployed (en grève), and instead of going to work, they gathered at the Place de Grève.
Today the French still go on strike (a lot) to call attention to their rights as workers. But, being French, they go about it a bit differently than some other countries. In England and the US, for example, if there is a conflict between workers and management, talks are held to see if the problems can be resolved. Then if there is no satisfaction, there might be a strike.
But not in France. The French take action first and talk later. They strike and disrupt services to draw attention to their situation. If they can cause enough problems, talks begin.
Bossnapping – La Séquestration de Patron
Bossnapping is a very strange phenomena (at least to the non-French). The first time I heard about this, I couldn’t believe my ears – I thought it was a problem with my understanding of the French language. But it wasn’t.
Bossnapping is when disgruntled workers barricade their bosses in their offices and hold them hostage until there is a resolution between labor and management – or at least until talks are underway.
The bosses are normally treated well: They are given food and drink and not abused in any way. And as long as that’s the case, the police usually don’t intervene. Most of these situations have been resolved peacefully.
Bossnapping has been practiced in France at least since 1968, but really came to worldwide attention in 2009 when a wave of bossnappings swept the country. Bosses were advised to keep a little survival kit in their office when there was the threat of unrest.
In the wake of all these bossnappings, then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, denounced the practice. He bravely declared that even disgruntled workers must obey the law – and holding people hostage was, indeed, against the law. However, a public opinion poll, taken at the time, showed that the public was still sympathetic toward the workers.
But times are changing in France and the French are turning away from kidnapping their bosses. In 2016, eight workers from Goodyear tire factory in France were given nine-month jail sentences for a bossnapping that took place two years earlier. So, it seems that bossnapping may be a thing of the past in France, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the strikers will keep to their schedule and I’ll be able to travel across France without disruption.
* More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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