BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Demonstrating la différence

A blockade by French fishermen brought Channel ports to a standstill. Why do British protests always look so tame in comparison, asks BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley?

"We want to go back to England, where people don't act like this," said one British tourist as she tried to break through a picket of French fishermen at the Calais Channel Tunnel entrance.

The British once took a perverse pride in their eagerness to down tools and wring concessions from employers.

French farmers demonstrate about the WTO
Burn issue: Fire is popular at French demos
With "wildcat" strikes and the "Winter of Discontent" now distant memories, commentators in the UK feel able to greet the actions of disgruntled French workers with tuts of disapproval.

"French-style" industrial action is now shorthand for any highly disruptive protest or blockade - invariably involving blazing bales of hay or stacks of tyres. And it's not only the UK Government which is outraged by such actions.

When British lorry drivers - angry, like the French fishermen, over fuel prices - suggested blockading the port of Dover, the Freight Transport Association was horrified.

"Those tactics may work in France, but the Government here does not respond to threats," said a spokesman.

So how different are the French and British cultures of protest?

Fuel prices -
Jose Huleux, the "mastermind" behind the fisherman's protest said British tourists should grin and bare the blockade.

"If their holiday is ruined, they should feel it has been in a good cause and not keep moaning about it."

Fuel tax -
When HGVs blocked roads around the country, the protests were timed to begin after rush hour.

"We do not want to alienate other road users so we will be meeting with the police to discuss where to meet and where to park," said spokesman Frank Stears.

Pilot strike -
In the run-up to World Cup 98, pilots from Air France - the tournament's official airline - went on strike for better pay.

With all eyes on the country and fans eager to take their seats, the strike was ended with a £100m government deal.

Tube strike -
London Underground drivers walked out in 1998 to make their feelings about any privatisation of the network clear.

The stoppages coincided with England's first World Cup games.

The beef war -
When some in the UK suggested a tit-for-tat boycott following a halt on British beef imports, French farmers were incensed.

British lorries in Calais were greeted by a barricade of burning tyres and rusty farm machinery.

The vehicles then were subjected to unofficial "searches" by the protesters.

The beef war -
Some UK supermarkets stopped stocking French produce in response to the beef ban. Where available, consumers appeared to shun Gallic goods, including apparently "French" dressing.

Tory MEPs followed the adage and traded parliament for the Parisian streets. The 11 politicians - and their "Let them eat British beef" banners - were met by riot police.

Anti-globalisation -
José Bové, leader of the "Peasant Confederation", led a wrecking party into a half-built McDonald's restaurant last summer protesting "bad American eating habits".

Although plenty of French like hamburgers, Mr Bové has become something of a national hero and is expected to escape harsh punishment.

Anti-capitalism -
When May Day protesters sought a target for their anti-capitalist demonstration, they picked a London McDonald's branch.

Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke for many in the UK when he called the vandals "mindless thugs" and an "absolute disgrace".

David Marsden, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, says for only partially unionised French farmers, lorry drivers and fishermen taking to the streets, or more exactly blocking them, is the only way to raise their grievances.

"None of these groups have well established channels to the government. They have a sense of community rather than strong unions."

Community action

Mr Marsden says high-publicity actions, such as the fisherman's blockade, can be executed with the minimum of union-style co-ordination.

"They achieve fairly spectacular events with a fairly small number of organised people."

Just eight vans created the bottleneck at the Channel Tunnel.

Channel Tunnel blockade
Protesters are bound by community, not unions
The French government also seems keener to reach a compromise with militant protesters than its counterpart across the Channel.

"There's a saying in France," says the BBC's Paris correspondent Jon Sopel. "The law is made on the streets, not in parliament."

Mr Marsden says public sympathy for protesters also stops the French authorities taking a hard-line on what looks like lawlessness - at least to the British tourists and lorry drivers caught up in the blockade.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

31 Aug 00 | UK
French protest in pictures
31 Aug 00 | UK
French blockade lifted
02 Jun 98 | Europe
French pilots in talks
30 Jun 00 | Europe
France's farm crusader
01 May 00 | UK
Violence at May Day protest
05 Apr 00 | UK
Boycotting: Walk on buy
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories