Vive la Grève! A Year Abroad Perspective

As any old historian would tell you, the history of Britain and France is one which has been inexorably linked for hundreds of years. Naturally, this has led to both countries taking a particular interest in the affairs of the other, and as is always the case with two nations who share a long and tumultuous history, a number of stereotypes have arisen over the years as a means of mocking one country’s cultural peculiarities whilst simultaneously boasting the superiority of their own norms. And so the French became known as the ‘froggies’, a label intended to poke fun at what was seen by the British as a grotesque culinary tradition, while the French scoffed at the rosbifs with their unrefined, neanderthalic tastes.

These labels continue to be used to this day and serve as proof that latent xenophobia is still widespread in both British and French culture. Yet it must be added that stereotypes are often based on at least some kind of truth. Yes, the French are famed for their cheeses and fine wines, not to mention frogs’ legs and snails. And yes, the British do enjoy the occasional WKD or Findus “beef” lasagne.

There is, however, one stereotype that I’ve never really understood about the French – that they are a nation which is constantly on strike, full of perennial picketers and protestors. Indeed, a brief look at some graphs and stats on the internet is all that is needed to show that this particular stereotype is somewhat erroneous and has most likely grown in popularity due to a few high profile protests which have happened in France over the years (May 1968, anyone?). My first few months of living in France as part of my year abroad only served to strengthen my belief that this stereotype was, if not completely false, then at least grossly exaggerated, as not once did I come across a group of angry placard-bearers.

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All of which meant that I was slightly surprised as I walked into work on an early February morning to find that the majority of the school’s teachers would be going on strike on February 12th in protest at the government’s proposal to increase the working week from 4 days to 4 ½ days, which would see the teachers going to work on Wednesday mornings. As such, all but one of my classes were cancelled which meant that on the day of the strike I found myself walking through the empty corridors of the old school building to my class, one of only two classes in the entire school whose teachers had decided against manning the picket lines. I half expected the forgotten, deserted children to revolt against their masters – whose insistence on coming into work had prevented them from enjoying a day off like the rest of the school – and attempt a Lord of the Flies-style self-governance within the school walls, if only for one day.   

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I understood why the strike was taking place – since its introduction in February 2000, the 35-hour working week has been a cornerstone of French working life, a sacred jewel which must be worshipped, revered and never, ever touched (unless it leads to fewer hours, of course). The message has always remained constant: dabble with our 35 hours, and we strike.

“Cry me a river”, I hear the average Brit retort. “4 ½ days a week? A slight increase on 35 hours? Oh what a hard life you’ll have to endure!” The fact that half term lasts two weeks and that two hours of the school day is taken up by the lunch break will do nothing to calm this sense of outrage, this stubborn insistence that the French are nothing but a bunch of lazy slackers. Yet the simple truth is that the French, when faced with the prospect of a change in their quality of life (be it the hours they work per week, their salary, their benefits and so on), are more vocal in their opposition than the British, and are more prepared to do something about it. And therein lies the solution to the problem of this confused stereotype – the French don’t necessarily strike more frequently than anywhere else, it’s just that we hear about their strikes because they decide to act. 

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Besides, as an unashamedly lazy student, if I hear that teachers are out on the streets championing the cause of the Wednesday morning lie-in, then strike on I say. Strike on.