France Strikes Back

Constant striking keeps France’s economy stagnant

France is a nation of contrasts, as I observed firsthand while studying abroad in Paris last semester. Last May, I rode the train à grand vitesse, France’s famed high-speed train, from Bordeaux to Paris. The TGV is a technological marvel, capable of speeding through the French countryside at over 170 mph.

But on this particular day, my train ground to a halt for hours somewhere outside Poitiers. Thousands of nurses, striking for higher wages, had overrun the tracks at Paris’s Montparnasse station, blocking all train traffic. Ironically, the train of the future had been stopped in its tracks by an old-fashioned labor protest.

My experience on the TGV illustrates the cognitive dissonance between France’s modern technological achievements and its antiquated labor laws. This dichotomy exists throughout Europe, but the conflict between past and future is starkest and most contentious in France.

In many respects France is well-prepared for the 21st century. The country’s public transportation is first-class; the Paris Metro is quick, reliable, and in a constant state of expansion. The TGV can transport you from Paris to Marseille in about three hours (when the tracks are not occupied by angry protesters). France is also a world leader in green energy production; seventy-five percent of its electricity comes from nuclear power.

But French workers’ militant, ’60s-style mindset undermines these advancements. France has long been notorious for frequent, interminable strikes. Most notably, a general strike in 1968 shut down the country for two weeks and nearly brought down the government of then-President Charles de Gaulle. Although labor disruptions have since become much rarer in most Western countries, they remain common in France. In the course of my five months in Paris, the nurses, the subway workers, the air traffic controllers, and even the high-school students went en grève.

Constant striking has helped French workers obtain lavish benefits and strong job protections. The retirement age is 60; much of this year’s labor action protested the government’s proposal to increase it to 62. Americans draw maximum Social Security benefits at 67. In France, most employees work 35-hour weeks, though a 2008 reform allowed businesses to extend the workweek on a case-by-case basis. Firing workers is notoriously difficult, as employers must prove in court either that an employee’s performance is poor or that they must eliminate the position to remain competitive. Together, these laws and customs have resulted in high structural unemployment and anemic economic growth.

Strikes inconvenience the public and make France a less appealing place to visit and do business in. More significantly, they foster an anti-free market environment that stifles political efforts to improve France’s economic competitiveness. If France’s economy continues to stagnate, its government will eventually be unable to maintain its admirable commitments to public health, education, and other social programs.

Ambitious, far-reaching labor-market reform is needed to improve France’s economy. The retirement age should be raised, the workweek should be extended, and tax incentives should be given to encourage employees to work more hours and years. French employers should be allowed to dismiss their workers without endless legal battles, since businesses that fear being stuck with incompetent employees will be reluctant to hire liberally. Most importantly, unions must be persuaded that labor-market liberalization is in their members’ long-term interests.

In an increasingly globalized world, technological prowess must be matched with a vibrant labor market in order for France to remain a world leader in commerce, culture, and technological advancement. Without a national consensus that the French worker must become more competitive, the nation of Delacroix and Debussy risks idling on the tracks forever, as other countries that are willing to make hard but ultimately beneficial choices bid it au revoir.

Anthony P. Dedousis ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House.