Why the French Love to Strike

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Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty

French fishermen stand next to a fire, on April 16, 2009, as they block the entrance to the industrial district of the harbor in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Protesting fishermen who had shut down traffic in several large ports on France's northern coast ended their two-day blockade Thursday — but promised to be back if their grievances weren't addressed. Few in France question the readiness to deliver on those and other threats of uprising by workers around the nation whose jobs are imperiled as recession bites deeper. Indeed, that kind of action is only an updated echo of France's historical penchant for insurgency in response to adversity — a tradition now making a comeback with the global economic crisis.

The flotilla of some 500 boats that had blocked the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk since Tuesday weren't protesting the recession as such, but rather European Union fishing quotas that the fishermen claim further undermine already slumping business. Still, their move to bring trans-Channel traffic to a creep — and shut down ferry service altogether — paralleled similarly muscular action by workers across France who have taken the law into their own hands to protect their jobs. (See pictures of France on fire.)

In the last month alone, employees and union officials have held no less than five company CEOs captive after they had announced major staff cuts or plant closures. On March 31, PPR president Franois-Henri Pinault had to be rescued by police after outraged staff surrounded his car following the disclosure of 1,200 job eliminations throughout his distribution group. Such exceptional French acts of intimidation didn't begin with the current recession. Bossnappings have been occurring sporadically in France in response to major staff cuts since 2000, after having been central to frequent factory occupations by radical labor unions in the 1970s. (Read "Massive Strikes Close France")

During the 1990s, the world repeatedly looked on in shock at acts of French rebellion, including the occupation of airport runways by striking Air France workers to stop flights for days, and the paralysis of French highways by protesting truck drivers. Similar dismay resounded abroad at images of French farmers, angered by the import of cheaper goods, capturing trucks from the U.K., Spain, and other European Union countries and dumping or burning their cargo — which often included live animals.

Some of that activity was rooted in France's leftist-driven insurrectional tradition, which snakes from the Revolution through the Paris Commune, into the Resistance and beyond May 1968. By the suburban riots of 2005, however, the ethnically diverse, economically disenfranchised project youths behind that violence had adapted France's tradition of politicized insurgency to a pragmatic goal that bossnapping employees are now also pursuing: securing a productive, gainful spot in France's market economy and capitalist society. The French public largely sympathizes: 55% of people in a BVA/Les Echos poll this week said they believe radical protest measures are justified, and 64% think actions like bossnapping should be depenalized because they constitute a last-gasp effort to avoid skyrocketing joblessness.

"The French people and their political culture love history and all commemoration of it — to the extent that France often looks to its past as much as it does to its future in responding to its present," says Guy Groux, a specialist in French social and labor conflict for the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris. "Because of that, we're in a political and ideological disconnect, with our egalitarian ideals rooted in past hostility to capitalism and free markets even as our society and economy have become utterly dependent on them."

Ironically, the weakness of French unions also explains their explosiveness. Less than 8% of French workers belong to a union — a figured dwarfed by averages elsewhere in Europe and even by America's relatively low 14% level. Worse still, small French unions are bitterly divided among themselves and tend to be dislocated from sector to sector. The result, Groux says, is French management often ignores them while preparing for layoffs and remains high-handed once negotiating begins. All that, he says, increases the allure and utility of insurrectional action — and pushes the limits of dramatic protest over time.

"French unions must often stage radical action as a prerequisite for obtaining good faith negotiations that big unions in the U.K. and Germany are granted out of hand, out of management's respect of their power," Groux says. "Meanwhile, unions and protestors turning to radical action here wind up competing with each other for the media coverage that creates — since big press is what creates pressure on bosses and the government to concede. The result is, there's constant obligation to up the ante to ensure protests don't wind up ignored."

Usually that works. Most French bossnappings have resulted in negotiations to reduce layoffs or increase severance payouts — or both. And this week's blockading fishermen got a promise of $66 million in government loans to ride out the rough economic seas. What they didn't get was movement on lowering the E.U. fishing quotas that provoked their ire in the first place. Because of that, it's a good bet they'll soon be seen mounting their aquatic barricades again.

See TIME's pictures of the week.