If you're an American who thinks French strikes are hilarious, I feel sorry for you

An environment in which people aren’t taught to defend their own best interests is sad and toxic. French people fought hard for proper annual paid leave, for sensible hours and for employer compassion — Americans don't have that

French strikes lead to travel chaos

Since 5th December, thousands of people have rallied in France, my native country, to protest a proposed reform of the pension system put forward by Emmanuel Macron’s government. That reform which would raise the age of retirement to 64.

The French strike has made headlines around the world, mainly reported through the lens of the inconveniences it has caused – the delayed subways, the shut-down schools, and the Eiffel Tower, which has been closed to tourists for the second time since the beginning of the strike on Tuesday.

In the US, where I live, one narrative has emerged: the French already have so much, welfare-wise, so why are they still protesting? What more can they possibly want now? When will it ever be enough? This rhetoric can easily verge on condescension, too – oh, French people, you feisty little bunch. Did you remember to don your beret before joining that picket line?

This narrative reveals just how badly America has failed to grasp the meaning of French “strike culture”. Even in progressive New York City, mainly under the guise of gentle ribbing, I have come to expect such criticisms. Whenever I tell someone that my travel plans have become uncertain because there’s a strike going on in France, I know to expect a raised eyebrow, an impish grin, a sarcastic comment. A strike? In France? What a surprise!

Of course, those comments aren't intended maliciously. But they are delivered by Americans, many of whom find the concept of going on strike entirely alien. (Yes, American people do go on strike and have had some major strikes in the past. It remains true that French people tend to strike more often, and more… spectacularly, shall we say, than their US counterparts.)

So, why are the French striking once again, you ask, even though they supposedly have so much to be grateful for? (Think: actual health benefits, a theoretical cap on how many hours they’re supposed to work in a week, unlimited sick leave, and a more generous allowance in terms of paid time off.) Well, if that’s what you’re wondering, then you’re asking the wrong question. French people aren’t striking in spite of the benefits they currently have. Rather, they have those benefits because they’ve gone on strike, protested, and fought for what they wanted in the past. And that's exactly why you don't have those same rights today.

Discrediting activism by poking fun at it is the oldest trick in the book. You see it happen all the time with feminism (just think of how many women were reluctant, in the mid-2000s, to even call themselves feminists, because of the negative images associated with the mere word). "You hear a lot of plain talk at Suffragist meetings — and see a lot of plain faces too!" ran one of the most famous posters opposing women's right to vote in the UK, which was fully intended to make people laugh along.

The same thing is at play with French strike culture – and with union culture at large. If you deride it, whether directly or by mocking it as some kind of fanciful thing French people do because, well, I guess they got tired of wearing garlic necklaces and needed another pastime, then I’m sorry, but you're wilfully misunderstanding how vital this all is.

In the US — even the coastal, liberal US — being a member of a union is still seen as slightly taboo. But instead of dismissing union membership as some kind of European tradition that wouldn’t stand on this side of the Atlantic, American people would be better served to attempt to understand why French people go on strike as often as they do.

If they did so, maybe they would realise that the life we live here – the life where healthcare is privatized, labor laws barely exist, paid time is off scarce, sick leave is rationed, and retirement has become a fictional pursuit – isn’t the only option. Another world is possible, but only if people demand it. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s tough, and it’s hard, and yes, it's extremely inconvenient, but it yields change – much more change than any joke at the expense of unions will ever bring about.

This isn’t to say, of course, that everyone in France supports strikes. You’ll easily find people in the Hexagon (French people’s nickname for their own country, because it is shaped like, you guessed it, a hexagon) railing against the ongoing pension reform strike. And to be clear, people don’t have to pick a side. You’re allowed to be annoyed that it’s taking you longer than usual to get to work, and still understand the importance of people’s right to strike. You can feel anxious about the uncertainty of your holiday travel plans, and still be grateful for the people who came before you and fought for the benefits you enjoy. In fact, being inconvenienced — and voicing annoyance about it — is part and parcel of striking. If people didn't voice their annoyance with the services they take for granted being taken away, then nothing would be done by the higher-ups to put things right, meet with the workers, and end the chaos.

It’s not uncommon for French people to react with frustration when American people fail to understand what strike culture means to their country. (And to some extent, I realize that I have expressed said frustration in this very column.) But what they fail to understand is that they should feel sorry for America and its workers. An environment in which people aren’t taught to defend their own best interests is a sad, toxic ecosystem.

Naturally, I’m not saying France is perfect – far from it. Take, for example, the mystical 35-hour work week that all French people supposedly enjoy. It is, I am sorry to say, a myth for many, and plenty have experienced their fair share of terrible work environments and abusive employment conditions. But having a strong strike culture means that nothing has to be accepted as an unavoidable fact of life.

People – if they choose to rally together – have the option to fight for what they want. It doesn’t mean they will always be heard, but it does mean that they have a means to raise their voices. That in itself is invaluable. The US has a lot to learn.

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