There’s a big train strike on in France right now. Enfin, it’s not really that big by French standards… just the biggest one in the past four years. Because in France, it’s normal for transport unions to go on strike a lot… and they prefer to go on strike on holidays or in the summer, when the largest number of people will suffer. In this way, they believe, they put pressure on the patronat (another very French concept, the “class of bosses,” separate from normal human beings).
In the U.S.A., unions are pretty much dead in the water right now; and that is a problem. In France, unions have a comparatively huge amount of power; and that is a problem. In general, the unions are trying to protect the acquis sociaux, or acquired benefits, from the Trentes Glorieuses, the “thirty glorious” years after World War II, when the French economy grew at about 5% a year. They are against most reforms, because the reforms tend to cut down these benefits, which include retirement at an age that would stagger Americans; five to eight weeks paid holiday each year (why do Americans settle for 1-2 weeks a year? it amazes me); health benefits; generous illness and maternity leaves; the 35-hour week; and job protection that in most cases means it is virtually impossible to fire someone unless the whole company is going under or the person has committed a grave fault. Nice work if you can get it! Unfortunately, in the current morose economic climate, this also means that employers are increasingly reluctant to commit to new “forever” employees. Hence the French phenomenon of high unemployment and too many places that are understaffed. Getting a full-time permanent job in France these days is quite a feat.
If you’re like most foreigners who come here, your first impressions of France are focused on the food, the lifestyle, the lovely architecture, the beautiful, fertile countryside, the ancient culture. But after you live here a while, especially if you live in Paris, you start to notice things like the constant strikes, the class warfare, the assumption that globalization is only bad, never good: the future seems dangerous. And one union’s name begins to jump out at you: the CGT (Confédération du travail). With the CFDT, originally a Christian trade union, it’s one of the two biggest unions in France; and it’s the one behind the biggest, angriest demonstrations. It tends to take the hardest line against any suggestion emanating from the patronat, which in turn is represented by the employers’ union MEDEF. It is “contestataire,” or argumentative and anti-establishment.