On April 2, 2018, train platforms across France were packed with passengers hoping to snag a seat on one of the only trains running nationwide. As union members of France’s national railway system (SNCF) began a rolling strike to protest government reforms, over 4.5 million passengers scrambled to find alternative ways to commute and the country was thrown into chaos. While strikes are common across industries in France, most protests are localized and only last a few days, creating an occasional inconvenience for citizens that employees hope will spur desired change. The strike that began on “Black Tuesday” went several steps farther, with all national lines shut down 2 out of every 5 days from April 2 to June 28.
To many international observers, France’s strike culture may seem disruptive, ineffective, and even paradoxical. After all, France scores high on Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance dimension, reflecting a desire for order and stability, and also demonstrates a high Power Distance that suggests deference to authority. However, these cultural traits demonstrate a strong interplay with the country’s low Masculinity and high Individualism, which helps explain France’s strike phenomenon.
Dealing with Power Distance:
While France scores high on Power Distance, this cultural aspect is not necessarily reflected in formal obedience to authority. From the age of Napoleon to the leadership of General de Gaulle, the French have historically relied on strong governmental leaders in times of crisis, viewing authority figures as benevolent patriarchs rather than iron-fisted rulers. In a country where the working class seeks to be heard at all costs, strikes are a way for French citizens to close the gap between authoritative leaders and the common people.
Another apparent paradox in the prevalence of strikes in French culture is the country’s high Uncertainty Avoidance, which indicates a need for organization, punctuality, and stability. This tendency is reflected in the intricate administrative systems which include complicated communication channels and multitudes of departments to ensure the accounting for every aspect of daily life. However, the French take workers rights and social freedoms even more seriously than their need for order, and are generally willing to forego the latter in order to protect their interests. The value placed on citizen’s rights can be traced back to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, two historical landmarks engraved in France’s national consciousness.
Defending Individual Interests:
While it may clash with uncertainty avoidance, France’s concern for individual rights and the wellbeing of the working class reflects its relatively feminine culture. While masculine cultures tend to judge success by competition and power, feminine societies emphasize quality of life and the ability of a society to ensure its citizens’ needs. This means that when government actions such as the SNCF reform threaten workers’ interests, it becomes culturally acceptable to disrupt culturally-valued organizational systems in order to protect common interests. Individualism also plays a role in this phenomenon, with each worker looking out for their interests, regardless of the inconvenience imposed on society as a whole.
While the SNCF strikes are scheduled to last another three months, French workers are striving to make their interests known and their voices heard in the meantime. An unusual system to many international perspectives, strikes remain an integral part of France’s social fabric and represent many important cultural values, regardless of the inconvenience imposed.
Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.
Amanda Alden is an intercultural research assistant with Access to Culture. She graduated with honors from St. Edward’s University with a major in Global Studies and a minor in French, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intercultural Mediations at l’Université de Lille III. Feel free to connect with Amanda at on LinkedIn.