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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Is striking turning into a French weapon of “mass self-destruction” or will the French finally learn to adapt to the new reality?!

I have always been very much in favour of striking as a ‘means-of-last-resort’.

It is the ultimate measure to let an unwilling employer know that its personnel means business: for better wages, for better/safer labour circumstances or for another important goal. The right to strike has helped numerous formerly ‘powerless’ workers to gain more respect and appreciation from their bosses and to get better, safer and more rewarding jobs for themselves (both in money and in job satisfaction).

This is the reason that the right to strike should be an inalienable right for every worker in every country all over the world.

Countries where normal workers don’t have the right to strike or where this particular right is treated with much disapproval and disdain by the people in charge, are almost always the countries, where workers are treated very poorly and with blatant disrespect.

There is one country, however, which gained infamy for its aggressive and sometimes very violent strikes, as well as for the large number of strikes that it went through in the past: France. One should not underestimate the enormous (self-)destructive powers that such strikes have generated against certain companies, industries and even the whole country.  The French workers have sometimes struck until the bitter end and sometimes for causes that raised ‘a few eyebrows here-and-there’  in other European countries.

In many other countries strikes have indeed been means-of-last-resort, which were only deployed when the distress was at a peak level and workers did not see another way out to claim justice and / or better conditions for themselves.

In France, however, striking always runs the risk of becoming a weapon of ‘mass self destruction’.

The French economy is the 5th strongest economy in the world with a GDP of $2.7 trillion dollars. With this GDP, the country leaves many other countries behind, which are much, much bigger than France.  Many French products, irrespective whether they are agricultural produce, handmade luxury products or state-of-the-art pieces of technology, are second to none in quality. Often these products famous for their French twist, which makes them out of the ordinary and thus much more attractive.

Nevertheless, the French economy as a whole seems to be clutching at straws currently. The country has shown little more than anaemic growth for almost two decades now and there is a general unwillingness among the population to accept the hard, but very necessary changes, scared as they are by the outlook of losing certain privileges.

The last few presidents – irrespective whether they were from the left of the right wing – have traditionally scared away from making the really tough decisions upon their population. They were just too afraid that their country would be victimized by massive strikes, ubiquitous unrest, chaos and violence on the streets and too weak a person to get the population behind their bold, but necessary moves.

Nicholas Sarkozy, for instance, has proven to be more a yapper than a biter. And François Hollande has shown himself as a hopelessly weak president, who is seemingly more busy with driving on his scooter to his girlfriends  and mistresses, than with running the country towards better economic times. The fact that Hollande offers the impopular Sarkozy a chance for a second stint as president, proves how incredibly weak he has been.

When things don’t change soon in France, then the extremely right-wing Front National might even become the largest party in France and perhaps Marine Le Pen – the slightly friendlier face of the FN, after barking ‘pitbull’ Jean-Marie Le Pen –could become the winner of the next presidential elections. You know that, in such a case, the blame-game will be played to the fullest in France…  And that the blame will probably land at the French Algerians, central Africans and other minorities in the large cities, as they are the easiest groups to blame for the misery of the other French.

And in the end, France will only become weaker and less united from it, as the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, which is used by Front National, is one of the most destructive political forces that any country could have.

When nothing dramatically changes in France, the whole country runs a substantial risk of losing the connection with the more progressive and vigorous countries in Europe, which already have eaten the sometimes bitter fruits of change. Thus France could become a second-rate economy in Europe: still important for the reason of its sheer size, but nevertheless hopelessly obsolete and scorned for that.

To be honest: although I praise the EU over and over again for the many good things that it did in Europe, the protection of workers has not always been one of them. To start with something positive: it is an undeniable fact that the safety situation for workers in the EU has improved dramatically under the EU labour regulations of the last fourty years.

However, this has not been the case for the security of labour and wages in particular. Both have moved in the direction of much looser, “liberal” regulation, which left much more leeway for large companies and smart entrepreneurs to wheel and deal with the wages and interests of their personnel. As a matter of fact: I disapprove of many new regulations and changes in the European (and Dutch) labour market and in the European economy, but consider them nevertheless to be a fact of life. 
  • Mini-Jobs in Germany and perhaps Belgium, which are creating a lower-class of workers, virtually without any rights and job security? I disapprove of it, but I can’t make it go away myself; 
  • Truck-drivers from Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania, who have been hired through opaque labour contracts and straw firms in the low-wage countries? People, who are driving their trucks for long, long hours, at a fraction of the wages that a western European truck driver demands and without having their rights and privileges,?! If you can’t change it, you have to live with it;
  • Low-budget air carriers, which are demanding blind obedience from their personnel and which are sometimes flying at kerosene fumes, because the management is too stingy to buy sufficient fuel for their planes?! If you can’t catch them in-the-act for breaking the aviation laws, then you have to change your own earnings model as an airliner, if you don’t want to perish;
  • Large ICT principals in Europe, which are pushing their freelance professionals and fixed contract employees to lower their tariffs and hourly fees to the bare minimum, otherwise threatening to replace them with thousands of eager ICT-experts from Eastern Europe and the Far East. Whether you like it or not, it happens anyway!
  • Many youngsters for whom it is impossible to get a steady job, as they get one temporary contract after another? It is the way it is, at the moment. It is unfair, but no employer seemingly gives a rat’s behind about that.
This new paradigm in the European labour market is here and it is here to stay, probably for as long as the crisis and the time of moderate (i.e. poor) economic growth and poor consumption in the EU lasts. And both might last for a helluva time!

When the French remain being unable to adapt to this new paradigm, the country will definitely start to seriously lag behind to the other European countries, which already did adapt to it. 

Yet, the French population has shown at many occasions that it rather strikes and demonstrates against this new reality, than that it adapts to it. And so the French striking can indeed turn into a weapon of mass self-destruction.

To take the pilots of Air France as an example of this French self-destructive stubbornness: as off today they have been striking for more than ten days in a row, against the positioning of Air France-KLM subsidiary Transavia as a pan-European pricefighter. The bill for this strike has exceeded €150 million euro’s in damages already and we are still counting.

The French pilots are afraid that they might be forced to work for Transavia, which will probably offer worse labour conditions than Air France currently does. And presumably they are right about that. Transavia, on the other hand, would run the gauntlet against the leading pricefighters Ryanair and Easyjet, with still competitive prices, but slightly more comfort and a friendlier face than its British competitors.

The fact that the pan-European deployment of Transavia has now been postponed (until eternity(?)) under pressure of the French strikers, does not mean that Ryanair and Easyjet do not exist anymore. And it doesn’t mean at all that this will stop the other large European airliners from adapting to the new reality of ‘flying-more-for-less-money’.

On top of that, it does also not mean that Air France will suddenly start to make mindboggling profits. To the contrary…

It could very well be that the French pilots will be punished soon for their inability to adapt to the new reality, by losing their job and/or even losing their employer through a massive bankruptcy. And perhaps the French pilots will even become an involuntary stereotype for a whole nation’s inability to adapt to this new reality. As a giant panda, sticking to his menu of bamboo shoots, in a world where there is less and less room for bamboo and consequently, pandas. 

If I were the French, I would fight for fair labour legislation and fair treatment for everybody within the EU (in which they are still among the undisputed leaders), but still open my eyes towards the new reality, instead of being surprised by it eventually…

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