Let me begin this post with a disclosure: I know very little about politics, domestic or otherwise. Consequently, I know even less about French politics. I've tried to educate myself, but much of the process and games played just boggle my mind (and I have a suspicion that I'm not the only one this is true of). So any and all opinions expressed here are solely based on my intuitive response to the recent events going down in France. I have no substantial foundation to base them on, I have no great understanding of their system, but I DO have the perspective of an outsider looking in. And this is what I see.
As some of you may (or may not) have heard, France is in the midst of a political showdown. The easiest way to describe it is France is fighting change, and France is winning. Some may say it's France v. Sarckozy, but really it's more than that. France has been fighting this battle for a long time, and it's a battle that is totally bizarre from the American perspective. This is what usually happens: some politician proposes some change (for whatever reason), that change may be an all things considered (atc) good thing or not (it doesn't really matter), that change will inevitably affect someone somewhere negatively, those people will go on strike, and the proposed change will be taken back. In the end, nothing changes. No progress is made, for better or worse. The culprit: la greve (the strike). Now don't get me wrong, strikes can be a very effective means for social change, but they can just as easily be obstacles to change. There is a difference between striking occasionally for things that really matter for a large group of people and striking because you happen to get the short stick this time. In the US, I think that there are probably too many groups of people who really do need to stand up for themselves (perhaps by striking, perhaps not) who don't, but in France I think the opposite problem is true. I think too many people who shouldn't strike, who shouldn't complain, do.
Some people think that the French shouldn't strike so much because it decreases their efficacy. If everyone strikes all the time, then no one will listen anymore. Strikes will become so routine that they loose their impact. And that probably is right, for some strikes, but it's not why the French strike-culture itself is bad. That's one downside, sure, but there's more to it than that. The problem is that the French have gotten so accustomed to going on strike in order to protect their interests, that they've lost perspective on collective interests. By collective, I don't mean collective groups of teachers, students, or transport works. They have plenty of that. This is by no means a collective action problem. No, the problem is that each worker is only worried about her own interests (or the interests of her profession as a whole). She doesn't worry about the interests of the nation as a whole (or more accurately, the interest of a wider group of individuals within the nation). I limit this to nation because I don't think they go on strike for foreign policy, so we'll keep this a domestic discussion (though I by no means think that they should only be concerned about the interests of their co-nationals).
Why do I say this? Well think of it this way: in any non-ideal situation (so like, pretty much any imaginable earthly arrangement short of some sort of heaven) the advancement of justice will require tradeoffs. To achieve the most justice society, there has to be some give and take. Some things are important enough that they will trump other things, even if those other things are also worth promotion. So you see, no matter what, the only way to secure the most just society will require sacrifices. Justice in our non-ideal situation can not be a totally win-win-win (cue Micheal Scott) situation. If trade-offs or sacrifices are needed for some greater amount of good, then someone somewhere will be unhappy for some indefinite period of time. The only way to enact whatever policy that is ATC the best bet for the most justice or flourishing (yes, I think that's a legitimate goal for governments to promote, won't defend it here or probably ever, sorry) is for the person who has to temporarily (or maybe permanently) give up some good/right/privilege to be willing to compromise. Yes my friends, compromise. Compromise does not mean you gun for the best deal for your own interests, it means you recognize that everyone has equally important interests and sometimes you have to give things up to make life the best it can be for the most amount of people. And no, I am not a utilitarian, but there are obvious undertones of that view here.
Now I'm not saying that folks currently on strike in France don't have legitimate interests to protect. I'm just saying that in general the power of the strike is used inappropriately. It's better for the parties involved, when they can, to sit down and discuss the problem with more than their own interests in mind. Yes I realize you won't end your strike until your pension is however much money at whatever age, BUT, maybe your pension isn't as important as the downfall of France's entire economy? Yes I'm being dramatic, but I worry for these folks. Every change is met with opposition. Some changes should be met with opposition, but some should not. Some changes are needed, desperately. Example, France's economy really is facing a crisis. Sure it seems to be doing well now, but in our global economy it is not fluid enough to compete. France just isn't able to change at the pace needed to stay in the game, and that's just the economy. Who even knows what will happen in the other sectors (education itself is looking rather grim, of that I can attest). Talk first, strike later, but only IF it's actually critical.
So why are there so many strikes? I have no idea. I can guess that it's strongly linked with France's overall conservatism (small c) regarding anything. They protect their language like a mother bear, so you can imagine how protective they are of keeping things the same, regardless of whether the current situation is worth keeping. Now this may make it seem like all French folks are strike-aholics, but that's not true. In fact, my most illuminating information has come from several French friends or teachers who are very frustrated with the strike-culture. Don't get me wrong, I've met my fair share of strike-lovers, but I've met more people than expected that are getting quite fed up. There are people here who want change, who think things aren't as good as they could be. I'm just not sure if things will ever get better here, not if attitudes don't change first.
This post was obviously inspired by the recent transportation strike (national rail and Paris metro). Now although the strike was a particular pain to me personally, that's not why I feel frustrated with the strikes. I made it to Paris and back this week despite the strikes. I'm not just bitter about the inconvenience they caused me (though it was annoying). To be fair, I've had several strikes that have worked in my favor. When I studied abroad my university went on strike for 3 months (pretty much because the govn't wanted to let companies fire workers who had been there for under 2 years if those workers weren't any good-- it's very hard to fire anyone and so companies just don't hire-- it's messed up), and I didn't have to go to school. Just yesterday MY students went on strike. That's right, my little lyceens have barricaded our school and decided that they just won't learn until Sarco takes back the partial privatization of universities plan. They could keep striking for another 2 weeks, and I won't have to work at all. So common sense would make you think I'd be in favor of the strikes. But in all seriousness I'd gladly return to work if it meant this country would free itself up for progress. So, there you have it.