The French society : politics, etc.... (#1)

See also :

The French and politics ...   Strange (for Americans) concepts in French politics and society
  • The French are very fond of national politics : if you watch the Evening News on a national TV channel (at 8 p.m.), you will be surprised by the number of reports and interviews.You will be surprised also by the fact that the French love general ideas and are bored by practical matters : in a national debate, they will talk about "changer la vie" i.e. "change life" (Mitterrand 1981) or "réenchanter le rêve" i.e. "re-enchant the dream" (Hollande 2012) but rarely about taxes or entrepreneurship. Too down to earth. Read also about French economic illiteracy. Read about the Presidential campaign.

  • Politics is a fight and when you win, you win everything : you are on one side or the other and non-partisan votes do not exist ; "checks and balances" has no translation in French. See more about the reasons why the French do not like change and prefer revolutions.


  • The main issue today is that the political tradition in France (where people like general ideas and adore conflicts) is challenged by European homogenization of political life : like other European countries, the French are trying to keep their specificity but the growing European power reduces their capacity to develop a specific policy (foreign policy, taxes, economic regulation, ...). See the reasons to vote Yes/No to the 2005 referendum about the European Constitution. and the "Yellow Vests" revolt in 2018-2019.


  • Amnesty : in France, the president can pardon any offense (droit de grâce), as the kings could do : he uses it very rarely on a case by case basis but it is a tradition that a new-elected president pardons a whole set of offences, from parking tickets to prison ; one of his first decisions is to propose to the Parliament a law to establish which offences will be automatically pardoned, fines forgotten and prisoners released... In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, who said in his campaign that he was against it, was the first president to break with this "tradition". American presidents also have a constitutional right to pardon, but they don't use it for parking tickets....

  • ATTAC is an association which was founded in the 1990s to promote the idea of a global tax on financial transactions (" Tobin Tax "). It has around 20,000 members and is quite influential among high-school teachers and more generally " altermondialiste " militants. Its members are strongly against market economy and anti-American. Its vice-president is Susan George, an American academic living in France.

  • Avantages acquis (irrevocable benefits) : a classical issue in labor disputes and political debates ; once any kind of advantage has been granted, it is considered unthinkable to suppress it, whatever the circumstances and the situation ; reducing salaries or increasing labor time may happen but is extremely rare in France and it raises huge controversies ; there is almost no example of workers accepting cuts in wages and unions refuse to sign any agreement of this kind : they prefer unemployment and the protection of the State. See what happened when the government decided to suppress the Monday Pentacost holiday to fund a social program. See a French paycheck and read my personal opinion about the 35-hour week.

    Bipartisan is a concept which hardly exists in France (the word does not even exist). Politics is a war and you do not cooperate with your enemy. This is why the opposition always votes AGAINST the proposal of the majority, even when it fully approves it (ex. : the 2008 vote of the Left against modifications of the Constitution which were almost totally based on its own proposals) ; in the extreme case where a "no" vote would be impossible to understand by its voters, the opposition does not vote and abstains (ex. : the 2008 financial plan to rescue banks like in all other European countries). In 2007, newly elected (right-wing) President Sarkozy appointed to his government several leaders of the Socialist party (including Bernard Kouchner, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marie Bockel Minister of Overseas Territories and Francophonia) : they were excluded by their own Party ; he appointed Minister of Urban Policy Fadela Amara, who had founded a very influential Left-wing movement for the promotion of women of foreign origin (of which she is one) : she is considered a traitor. In French politics, you NEVER congratulate and wish good luck to your opponent if you lose (speeches like McCain's in 2008 are unthinkable) and when you leave office, you destroy as much paper and documents as you legally can (I have personnaly witnessed that). Nothing to be proud of.... See more examples of sectarianism and lack of fair-play in French political life.
 Strikes and strikers
  • Striking and demonstrating are strong local traditions in France. There are strikes for many reasons (local, national, sectorial) but they are, in fact, targeted against the State to press it to do something to address a problem. The French do not value consensus and do not negotiate unless under pressure : the classical sequence is to go on strike first and then negotiate...

  • Most of the strikes concern state-owned companies (train, urban transit, utilities, hospitals, air controllers, etc). Sometimes, they are just ritual: you can expect a transport strike every year in the fall. They also go on strike "on behalf" of the other categories : in Spring 2003, there were huge transport strikes, when the transport sector was not concerned by the Government's project on retirement age.

  • Actually, the total number of strike days is low in France (and below the European average : 37 compared to 43 days/1000 workers, see detailed figures) but they concern mostly the transport sector ; the French tolerate them surprisingly well and, to some extent, they are considered by many as a vicarious way of going on strike.

  • Read why it is consistent with the way Economics is taught in High School.

  • A typical (non transport) strike was the Summer 2003 strike of the " intermittents du spectacles ". It concerned all the categories which contribute to show business : technicians, musicians, actors, etc : unhappy with the recent re-renegotiation of their labor contract, they forced cities to cancel most Summer festivals all over the country; frustrated tourists then complained to the cities, who in turn demanded the State to intervene in this labor dispute !

  • A few examples :

    • The strike of students against a C.P.E. (a new job contract aimed at helping young people to get their first job) : see a tentative explanation of this typical French social crisis.
    • See recent examples of typically French strikes (fishermen blocking harbors, electricity workers cutting power to hundreds of government officials' homes) and read about strikes in Paris Diary. See an impressive list of strikes and demonstrations taking place at any time in France (in this example : Spring 2005).
    • In 2010, the French football team went on a sort of strike two days before its last (lost) game. Read my column about it.
  • In October 2004, the French Railway Company (SNCF) and the six major unions signed an agreement which is considered a major progress in labor relations : unions agreed that they would not go on strike BEFORE having started a discussion (instead of the traditional strategy : "first strike then negotiate"). Looks strange, doesn't it ?

  • Another surprising fact : almost always, at least in the public sector, after a strike, part of the settlement agreement concerns the payment of salary for the days of strike, which are very often actually paid, at least partly. In 2003, the government refused to pay after several weeks of a national strike by the teachers. It was the first time and it dealt a severe blow to the strikers who did not expect such a tough ending.

  • However, there is now (2014) some Good News about strikes.


  • Cohabitation is the situation in which the President must appoint a prime Minister who does not belong to his political side because the majority has changed. It is possible within the constitution but it is much too frequent (Mitterrand / Chirac, Mitterrand / Balladur, Chirac / Jospin,..) and it weakens the French governments (which do not need this additional contradiction). A strong President should dissolve the National Assembly or resign (as de Gaulle did).
  • Cumul des mandats (plurality of mandates) : the number of political mandates that can be held at the same time is always a surprise to foreign observers. Almost all members of the Parliament (deputies or senators) are also mayor and/or, president of a region or of a "département" (county). The French consider that you cannot be a good law-maker if you don't know real life and you cannot be a good local politician if you don't have friends in Paris. In 2010, only 77 deputies (out of 577) and 90 senators (out of 343) have only this mandate. Voters prefer to elect someone who has good connections rather than someone solely dedicated to a job : another example of preferring relationship to procedures. In 2014, a new attempt to limitate it is vigourously opposed by the Senate.

  • Droite et Gauche (Left and Right) : the French adore ideological disputes and the concept of Right versus Left means a lot to them ; a Right wing government would not survive the accusation of being driven by values from the Left and conversely. In the USA, one could say that the right-wing considers itself entitled to say what is good/right and what is bad/wrong ; in France this could apply to the left-wing. A partial explanation could be that in France, for moral standards, the equivalent of religion (as in the US) is the socialist philosophy. This is certainly a little exaggerated but possibly not groundless. Read an excellent book by Ronald Tiersky and visit the section on attitudes) and beware of "faux-amis" : in French a "libéral" is someone who is for free enterprise and market economy and the "radical socialiste" party is a center-right political party. Asked if they consider themselves "more on the Right", "on the Left" or "in the Center", the French answer : Right : 39%, Left : 32% and Center : 29% (a poll published in Le Monde April 6, 2018). More about French political parties and the Right/Left split.

    Elections : some technical aspects make French elections impossible to understand from abroad : among them "elections à deux tours", elections at different levels which give the impression that the country is constantly in a political campaign (élections municipales for mayors and city councils, élections départementales for county representatives, élections régionales for regional representatives, élections législatives for deputies, élections sénatoriales for senators, élections européennes for the European parliament, élections présidentielles), "cohabitation" (when the president must appoint a government with totally opposed ideas), "cumul des mandats" (the same person can have up to three of the above-mentioned mandates, for instance député-maire or conseiller régional-député européen, etc). Read about the 2017 presidential election. Read an article by Harriet Welty about how the French view the American voting system and a Paris Diary page about the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution.

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? Most Americans think that colonialism is bad, and they are right. Among them, most Americans Democrats think that, between the liberals (like them) and the conservatives (like the Republicans), being anti-colonialist is a normal attitude for liberals. But in fact, at the beginning of colonisation and until the 1930s, the French Left (i.e. the liberals) was FOR colonization (to bring democracy and progress to poorer peoples) while the French Right (i.e. the conservatives) was AGAINST colonization (too costly for what it brings to business).



Demonstrations : marching in the streets...

  • In addition to strikes, marching in the streets is also a constitutional right and the only obligation is to declare it in advance and agree on the route of the march. Very few marches are forbidden (28 in 2013) and the number of demonstrations is amazing : according to official sources (Préfecture de Police), the number of authorized demontrations in Paris was 4,411 in 2013 (plus : 730 un-authorized). They represented more than 11 milion people marching in the streets! Paris demonstrators have always been considered a threat by the government and Napoleon said "I am more worried about a cold in Paris that about an epidemic in a region".

  • In Paris, a traditional demonstration (against the government's policy, for the Dalaï Lama or against something somewhere) follows these steps : the Prefecture de Police is informed and gives the authorization (99,99% of the time), TV channels and newspapers talk extensively about it so nobody can miss it ; if it's a big one, demonstrators walk from Place de la République to Place de la Bastille (you see the symbol?) or reverse, at the end of the demonstration, a few hundred thugs burn cars, burn a few shops and throw stones or Molotov cocktails at the cops, and all ends in a big fight. The next day, the Ministry of Interior announces that there were 50.000 demonstrators, 50 cops injured and 200 thugs arrested. Those who organized the demonstration claim 457.856 peaceful demonstrators, 574 of them having been savagely attacked by drunk cops who did not hesitate to set fire to the shops. They announce a demonstration the next day against violence by police forces and to free innocent students arbitrarily put in custody, etc.. It is so repetitive that it is boring.....

  • "Street-democracy" : after a law has been passed by the (democratically-elected) parliament, it is considered absolutely democratic to march in the streets and demand its abrogation...


    Some original forms of strike :

    • In March 2006, Jean Lassalle, a deputy from the mountainous Pyrénées region, went on a five-week hunger strike in the main hall of the National Assembly because the Japanese group Toyal, the only employer in his valley, was planning to move its plant to Lacq (50 miles away). Although quite controversial, this strike proved successful : the government heavily subsidized Toyal to maintain the plant in this remote valley.
    • More to come

DID YOU KNOW THAT.....? In France, you can go on strike for free ! After the negotiation that ends each strike, one of labor's demand is always the full payment of salaries for the days of strike. It is generally accepted, at least partly, and almost always totally in the public sector. In Spring 2003, there were huge strikes of teachers (several weeks) against the decision to set at the same level the number of years of work which qualify for a full pension in the public sector (then 37,5 years) and in the private sector (40 years) : the government did not change its project and it was considered an unprecedented and shameful decision when it decided to pay only a minor part of the salary for non-worked days. For the first time, teachers, who go on strike several times a year, had lost income significantly.


Labor unions

Their situation in France gives a good idea of how " blocked " the French society is :

  • Labor unions are protected by the Constitution and by law and they are considered the normal representatives of the workers. Under the name "partenaires sociaux" (social partners), both labor unions and employers associations are legally in charge of maintaining the French "modele social" (social model), with the State as the referee.

  • But : the proportion of workers who are members of a labor union is the lowest in Europe.

  • They are very weak : the % of workers belonging to a union is below 10%, one of the lowest % in Europe. They are split between several rival organizations : the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), close to the Communist Party, is the most important (see about its leader Philippe Martinez), then comes the Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT), more open to the real world, then Force Ouvriere (FO),close to trotskism and a few others, ... They are extremely weak in the private sector and relatively strong in the public sector (see more details)

  • They are conservative : the master concept is "avantages acquis" (something like "irrevocable benefit"), especially in the public sector (see about retirement and the difference with the private sector)

  • They are not efficient : they do not try to cooperate between themselves to obtain better results : for corporations, they are easy to cope with

  • They are irresponsible and would not, at any price, give up a demonstration or a strike, whatever their economic or political impact. For example, in September 2005, Corsica was blocked and a ferry hijacked to oppose the privatization of SNCM, the bankruped ferry company. Read Paris Diary about it. See more examples.

  • It is a largely shared view, including in business circles, that the French society would benefit from stronger and more responsible labor unions.

  • More to come...

  • Francophonie : France is persistently trying to structure an international organisation around the 50 countries or so where French is the first language, mostly in Africa ; American diplomacy hates everything about this ; the colonial past is still very present in France and the relations with former colonies are close ; the French had a vision of colonization which was very different for instance from the British's ; Mort Rosenblum, former AP bureau chief in Paris, wrote a very clear-sighted book about it ("Mission to Civilize") ; read about the French and their language and see figures about overseas territories.

  • Gaullisme : the modern form of an old tradition in French political life : a powerful state, a republican but strong leader and a rather nationalist foreign policy ; an archaic form is " bonapartisme " which still exists (in Corsica !) ; it is somehow linked with a deeply rooted vision of political life called " jacobinisme " which dates back to the French Revolution (with Robespierre), representing the centralizing vision as opposed to the decentralized idea of France, " Girondisme ". Read more about de Gaulle.

  • Laïcité (secularism) : Most Americans do not understand it : in France, you do not mix religion and society. It is a private domain and no candidate for any public function would ever mention his religious belief, the name of God, etc ; it is absolutely unthinkable that a French president would express his religious beliefs the way US presidents do (particularly George W. Bush) ; at social occasions (dinner party, etc..), it would be considered very rude to start a discussion about God and religion, unless a very light and careful one ; the role of the church in social life is extremely limited compared to the U.S.A. Globally speaking, France is a country much less religious than the USA which does not mean that people have no religious beliefs, but they are strictly a personal choice. "Laïcité" does not mean that the state is against religion, but it means that it must guarantee that all religious beliefs are treated equally, including having no religious belief. An illustration of that is the Sunday morning program on France-2 (state-owned TV channel, around 30% of total viewers) : between 8:30 am and 12h30, there is a mass and various programs by all religions and philosophical opinions (Protestant, Islam, Jewish, Free Masons, Atheist, you name it...). One can say that "laïcité" is a value which shared by a huge majority of the French, whatever their religion. This is why the Islamic veil in school caused an almost unanimous scandal. The milestone is the 1905-law of separation of church and state : since that date, all religious buildings belong to the local authorities or to the state (which must maintain them), no member of the clergy can be appointed and paid by public funds (except in Alsace, where the system is the German system), etc... Communautarism is considered an obstacle to secularism and the French are against any social behavior that would mean "we do not belong to the same country". These principles are largely agreed upon in the French society (see a poll) but many Americans strongly disagree with them. Even French Muslims are progressively absorbing the secular ways of their countrymen : see a European comparative study. As an example of the permanent monitoring of "laïcité" by French governments, one could mention the creation (Decree March 25, 2007) of an "Observatoire de la Laïcité", a permanent commission including members of the Parliament and highlty respected personalities, which will report to the Prime Minister and monitor the "respect of secularism in public services". However, in the name of "religious freedom", many French Muslims make the headlines of newspapers with infringements on secularism : see a few examples. More about religion and compared situations in Europe. Read a letter about freedom in schools and my personal view about it. For more information, see three papers published by the official body Observatoire de la Laïcité (Secularism Monitoring Centre, created by the State in 2007) :

    Official declaration for Secularism (2016)

    Secularism today

    LIberties and restrictions.

  • Lying is no big deal in French politics : from Bernard Tapie who said in court "I lied, but it was in good faith" in the 1990s to Jerome Cahuzac, then MInister of Budget and therefore in charge of the French IRS, who said in front of the whole National Assembly "I have not and I never had a foreign bank account" (when it was established two weeks later that he had) in 2013, example are innumerable. Do you kow that, according the French law and "in order to protect democracy", no member of the parliament can be taken to court for anytrhing he/she said in the Parliament and perjury is not a crime ? Read about the Minister of Justice lying openly on TV. This is true also in business, where only what is written is really binding : lying orally does not count....
  • "Modèle social français" : everybody on the Left and many people on the Right are very attached to what they call the French "modèle social" (social model) ; for them, it means free or moderately priced "services publics" (see below) such as health and education, a higher compensation for unemployed people, a minimum income for all (see RMI), free health care for illegal immigrants (see AME), some prices depending on income, etc... Although very questionable now, this issue was decisive in the 2005 referendum on Europe : millions voted NO to protect the French society against what they considered a threat to the "modèle social" by "the heartless Anglo-Saxon market economy". A striking figure : with b. 600 Euros a year, France (1% of the world population) represents 13% of the world social public expenditures. See a few examples, some good, others less so..
  • Paritarisme: In France, most issues concerning human resources, labor laws and labor relations are based on the concept of "paritarisme" (i.e. equality between labor and capital). It goes back to the reconstruction of the country after WW2. In 1945, successive governments wanted to rebuild a country where Labor would be institutionally and politically stronger and could be an equal partner to Capital, the government being only a sort of referee in their negotiations. Therefore all the institutions concerning labor relations are composed equally of representatives of labor unions on one side and employers associations on the other side. The State is not a member but its responsibility is to make the system work.
    This organization was consistent with the Social-Democrat political movement in Europe, with a Gallic touch : when both parties can't agree, they expect the King to make the decision.

  • Privileges : One of the most famous dates of the French Revolution is the "Nuit du 4 Aout". Two weeks after the storming of the Bastille, on August 4, 1789, the "Assemblee Constituante" (National Assembly) decided, in an extraordinary competition of sacrifices, to give away the traditional privileges of the higher classes. The representatives of the nobility and of the church abandoned their exemption of taxes, the nobility abandoned the monopoly of the officer grades in the army and pensions with no corresponding service, the church abandoned its privileges etc. This was one the most spectacular days of the whole Revolution. More than two centuries later, hundreds of other privileges have been systematically built. They are called "avantages acquis" (acquired benefits) and "niches fiscales" (tax niches).

  • "Avantages acquis" are the benefits attributed (mostly in the public sector) like free or almost free services for the employees of major public utilities such as electricity or transport but their variety and their extension is extraordinary. As an example, employees of SNCF (State railways) travel for free on trains but their (extended) family too : the total number of beneficiaries has been evaluated officially at 1.1 million and the total cost at more than 100 million Euros ($140m.) (Source : Cour des Comptes, Annual Report 2014). Read more about it.

  • "Niches fiscales" (literaly : "tax kennels") : there are several hundreds of tax breaks and tax deductions for an incredible variety of tax-payers. As an example, journalists benefit from a $10.000 tax break in addition to all other legal tax breaks. but, as a desperate Finance Minister noted "every tax kennel has a barking dog". Read more about it.

DID YOU KNOW THAT.......? The award of "The Most Stupid Political Statement" is held by Fouquier-Tinville, president of the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1794 who is said to have answered "The Republic does not need scientists" in response to the illustrious chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who, to save his head, pleaded that he was a highly regarded scientist and needed some time to finish some of his research. He was beheaded....



See :

  • The RMI (" Revenu minimum d'insertion " : minimum income for a return to activity, now RSA "Revenu de Solidarite Active") is an allocation which is attributed to anybody (over age 25), French or not, who does not work and who does not qualify for a program for the jobless (for instance people who never had a job or people incapable of working). The number of beneficiaries is above 1,2 million (2007). Its amount is around 450 Euros/month ($ 500). People who receive RMI also receive many additional benefits and gratuities (free public transport, health coverage CMU, housing allocation, etc). The RMI is financed by the "département " (see the territorial organization of France). The number of frauds seems to be high. In 2009, the RMI was replaced by the RSA (Revenu de Solidarité Active), more efficient and fair (you don't lose it immediately if you resume working).
  • "Service Public ": when a Frenchman says he/she wants to defend the "Service Public" (public services), he/she has said everything. For him, it means that a state-owned and/or state-run service will not try to maximize profit but to maximize the quantity or the quality of service provided: therefore, when RATP workers (the Paris transit system) go on strike to demand to lower the age of retirement (already 50!), Parisians who must walk to their work support them in spite of the hassle! In France, it is a very esteemed position to be a "fonctionnaire". Still, it is a fact that the quality of " Services Publics " in France is much higher than in the USA (train, urban transit, etc). For the French, the state-owned TV channels "service public" are expected to be better, less vulgar, less devoted only to entertainment and commercials (and, indeed, they are!).

  • Trotskisme : a surprisingly strong political vision in extreme-left political life with 10% of votes with 3 different candidates, in the 2002 presidential election (Lutte Ouvrière, Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Parti des Travailleurs) ; since the Socialist Party came back to power with François Mitterrand in the 1980s, the extreme left is progressing and represents the refusal of any compromise with the existing society. Having been persecuted by Stalin gives theses organizations a sort of label of honorability and as they refuse to participate in any democratic local or national power nobody can reproach them for having betrayed the ideal perspective of the glorious Proletarian Revolution. France is the only democratic country with these kind of movements alive and well and many proeminent French politicians have de "Trotskyist background" (L.Jospin, JL.Melenchon, P.Moscovici ro name a few). Why ? I see two reasons for that, both consistent with what the French value the most. First : they prefer theory to action and Trotsky was an intellectual, as opposed to Lenin and Stalin who were pragmatic. Second : they prefer a valiant loser to a boring winner and Trotsky was defated by Stalin who finally had him killed in Mexico.

  • More to come
To related pages : more about French society (#2), French politics (#3), French attitudes and French profiles (#4),French institutions (#5), ethical issues, etc..

To table of contents

To top of the page

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..) and on speeches by Harriet and/or by Philippe Rochefort

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!