In spring in 1968 La Belle France went on strike. The sepia tinted images, the demonstrations and the clashes with police have become a symbol of France. For many, strikes are now a cliche for the country.
This was the largest in France’s history which parlaysed the country for three weeks as workers and students took to the streets. A record nine million people downed tools. It was a turning point in the country’s history.
It was not until 1995 that there was a comparable level of strikes. The mass walk out then was over the Juppe plan on pension and social security reform. Alain Juppe was the then Prime Minister of the Jacques Chirac presidency who had just been elected.
Several times the prime minister intervened to defend the reforms as essential. The message fell on deaf ears. After two months Alain Juppe withdrew his pension law.
How do you assess the impact of the strikes? Economically it is difficult to be precise. Estimates for the events of 1995 are put at a cost of between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of GDP. Those figures do not make a huge dent. No, the effect can not be accounted for in figures.
There is an indirect impact on the country which has the biggest effect.
Each new mobilisation, every social movement leads to the country becoming paralysed which in turn has an effect of blocking any reform making them difficult to implement. Successive governments have been seen to go backwards.
In 2006 , trade unions and students demonstrated against what was called the CPE. It was a new form of employment contract for employees under the age of 26. One of the elements could have made firing staff easier. But it was denounced as a law to fire staff.
“I wanted to act quickly, I wanted to propose a strong solution. That was not understood by everyone, I am sorry,” then Prime Minister Dominique De Villepin told the nation. Once more a law was “retired”.
In March 2010 it was the turn of the government of Francois Fillon to face the wrath of the French workers. This time it was pensions. The prime minister wanted to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62 years.
Several million private and public sector workers took to the streets. But this time Francois Fillion did not back down. Ironically his stance provoked a rebuke from one MP – Manuel Valls.
“Unfortunately today, the deadlock is the demonstration that forcing a law through with the absence of any social dialogue in a modern democracy leads to situations like the one we know,” the now prime minister said.