Only in France can a bicycle go on strike
There is an app that is all the rage in France called cestlagreve. It is a handy update for all the strikes that are taking place at any one time all over the country.
This includes the free bikes of Paris called Vélib – only in France could a bicycle go on strike. Topping the list is les cheminots, the railway workers of the SNCF, who’ve very helpfully produced a detailed plan of all the dates they will be ceasing to operate until the end of June.
For a train driver, retirement can occur at 52; conductors and other exhausted workers are forced to struggle on to 56. Then it’s a life of leisure, saucisson, baguettes and rosé, for another 30 or 40 years, with free travel and a pension that rises with inflation.
Some years ago there was a compelling advertisement for a red sports car, with the strapline: “Nobody in Italy grows up dreaming of being a train driver.”
I suspect few in Britain do any more, but I bet a fair number of young French people fancy 25 years or so of whizzing around on the TGV, before settling down to the serious work of picnicking with their pals.
This May marks 50 years since the Paris Spring, when workers, academics and students united in protest. In the Latin Quarter, barricades were erected and paving stones were dug up and hurled at the police. ‘Sous les paves, la plage’ – under the paving stones, the beach, was my favorite slogan.
Academics have spent the last year writing books to explain the significance of these events. Many of the protests back then were successful because they were non-specific: It wasn’t about working hours or pensions, but more general concerns, such as they didn’t like what was happening in Prague or Vietnam.
General de Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany and called for new elections. Gradually the protests died down (it was summer, and the French had to go to the beach). The soixante-huitards, as the ‘68ers are known in France, entered the mainstream, and some even got jobs. One of their more radical leaders, the flame-haired Daniel Cohn-Bendit, became a member of the European Parliament.
France, more than any other country I have ever lived in, reveres the right to protest, to lay down your tools
But unlike its European neighbors, France had revolution, but not reform. Many working practices might be better described as skiving practices. Every person I have ever met who employs people in France shakes their head when they start describing the benefits they have to pay, or the way their workers react when asked to do something different or work a little harder.
Economists have struggled since the 1990s to explain the country’s sluggish economy. The reason is very simple: Once you hire somebody, it is virtually impossible to fire them. Overtime is more of a favor than a requirement. As a French person quipped to me when the 35-hour week was introduced some years ago, “who would want to work that much?” The idea that Paris is somehow going to supplant London as Europe’s financial capital is beyond ludicrous. The greedy chumps of the City of London may be many things, but idle they are not. If a deal requires everybody to work over the weekend, they will do so. In Paris, as in Frankfurt, such effort is not only undesirable, it is illegal.
Time to overhaul such regulations? Time to take away the special “coal” allowance that pays French train drivers a health-related bonus for operating in such a hostile environment, even though no major French train has been powered by coal since 1975?
Non, say the workers. So people who are trying to do business in Cannes find it impossible to get there; trains that should run on time from Paris to London on a non-strike day are delayed by a couple of hours.
Enter Jupiter himself, Emmanuel Macron, the young president of France, Donald Trump’s pal and a former Rothschild banker. His reputation, his administration, will be marked by how he deals with these pesky train drivers and their pals. Public opinion appears to be on his side. So far.
But France, more than any other country that I have ever lived in, still romanticizes the worker. The right to protest, to lay down your tools, is one that is
revered, rather than ridiculed. I’m betting that Macron is going to have a harder time of it than he thinks — before July comes, and it’s time to watch the Tour de France and head to one of the beaches, preferably driven by one of les cheminots who will have come off the picket line to take you there.
• Rupert Wright is chairman of Ashbright, a communications firm with offices in Europe and the Middle East. He was a journalist for 25 years, writing mainly for The Times and Financial Times, and latterly The National in Abu Dhabi.