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International Affairs Editor

France: Crouching strikers, hidden unions?

Le 18-01-2012

It’s being billed, in that cryptically Gallic way, as a “crisis social summit” aimed at creating jobs amid the worst unemployment France has seen in over a decade.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s high-profile face-off with union and business leaders at the Elysée Palace this week is likely to showcase a paradox: the relative weakness of French workers in a country notorious for its loud, serial strikes.

That’s right, weakness.

Contrary to their popular image as proletarian juggernauts who crush all obstacles in their path, workers in the nation that brought us the storming of the Bastille are less likely to be union members than almost anywhere else in Europe.

It will come as little surprise to any French person reading this that only nine percent of their compatriots actually belong to unions.

But as a foreigner – even one who has lived in France for eight years – that nine-percent figure comes as quite a shock.

(Living near the capital’s Place de la République, perennial rallying point for strikers past and present, I feel entitled to forgive myself for sometimes assuming there are more union members than people in France.)

In fact, France is eighteenth in the OECD’s rankings of trade union membership by country – behind the United States, at 13%, and Great Britain, where 29% of workers are unionised despite the continuing fallout from Margaret Thatcher’s union-busting legacy.

Compare this to Sweden, where 82% (!) of the working population is unionised, edging out worker-friendly Finland and Denmark, at 76% membership rates each.

Not as mighty as you may think

The statistics, of course, belie most foreigners’ perception of France as a place where all-powerful unions lord it over the land, Bolshevik-style, forcing politicians to heed their diktat – or else.

The visibility – and volubility - of France’s unions is inversely proportional to their numerical clout.

In other words, they are loud and in-your-face because they feel they have to be to stay relevant.

With a nine percent membership rate, unions’ natural impulse is to behave more radically than, say, their counterparts in Germany, where unions have a much more consensual relationship with government.

Whereas negotiation is a pillar of German labor relations, in France the standard operating procedure is typically to strike first, and talk later.

French strikes – or at least the impact of French strikes on society – are often seen through a distorted prism.

That is because many of the work stoppages that blight daily life for millions of French citizens occur in key public sectors - such as public transport, airport and airline services, and schools. These are domains where even limited shutdowns can have big ripple effects, politically, economically and socially.

Playing “social” politics

The nature of French strikes feeds a perception of them as being more frequent, and causing greater inconvenience, than may actually be the case.

In terms of actually working days missed due to strikes, France trails European peers such as Denmark, Spain, Norway, Ireland and Italy.

All of this is to say that French unions have their work cut out as they square off with Sarkozy over the best way to move their jobs agenda forward.

The French president is clearly playing politics with this summit, using it as a platform for pitching a raft of labor reforms that extend well beyond the unions’ priority of jobs, job and jobs.

Among the measures Sarkozy proposes are rules that would make it easier for bosses to hire and fire their workers, and transferring more of the burden of paying social fees from salaries to consumers, in the form of a value-added tax on basic purchases.

This would whittle away at their buying power – a key plank of Sarkozy’s reform agenda when he first came to office in 2007.

The unions are adamant about not allowing themselves to be used as tokens in Sarkozy’s (counter-intuitive) bid to salvage his flagging popularity ratings by taking unpopular measures.

Record unemployment, looming recession

It would seem a no-brainer that in a country suffering its worst unemployment in 12 years, and where recession is beckoning, most French would dismiss Sarkozy’s reform agenda as a cynical conceit.

But as we’ve seen elsewhere – look at George W. Bush in the United States – it is axiomatic that ordinary workers often side with politicians whose policies are most detrimental to their interests.

Sarkozy may be an embattled president, with slumping popularity ratings, at a time when his country’s citizens – already the most pessimistic in the world – are not in a benefit-of-the-doubt-giving mood.

The question is whether France’s unions and their Socialist allies will prove even less popular than a wily president who is anything but their natural ally.