You've all, I imagine, seen the newsclips showing the French unions demonstrating their disapproval of government action by taking to the streets...but look behind the image and you'll find a disturbing reality.
In the post war political settlement of France, the social actors were defined as government, bosses and unions and these were accordingly represented on the bodies dealing with social policy....notably health, social security and pensions.
The unions, which grew from the struggle for decent conditions for workers, became accustomed to the exercise of power....and accustomed to access to money which was not contributed by their members.
To take the example of the near monopoly elecricity supplier EDF, while the unions obtained the benefit for EDF workers of only having to pay 10% of their electricity bill they also obtained access to 8% of the company payroll to fund the 'Comite d'Entreprise'...the fund for welfare and social activites which all but the smallest firms are obliged by law to set up.
This fund is controlled by those elected by the firm's workers and in any large scale firm is run in effect by the majority union.
We are not talking beer and bunfights here: we are talking chateaux and 'fetes champetres' to make Marie Antoinette's eyes water.
But what is the objection? Are not the workers entitled to a bit of fun?
Of course, but places are limited....and if you want to go to the same ball as Comrade Machin, shop steward, you had better start looking for a fairy godmother as he's booked the whole coach.
Further, lax accounting means that following that money from source to seashore is next to impossible. From 2008 the law demanded that every union with access to large amounts of money for their social and welfare funds should produce accounts....well, the law can demand all it wants, the accounts still remain hazy and leave the well founded suspicion that money from these funds goes to support the union itself.
But this is, relatively speaking, small beer, as are the vast government grants to unions to provide 'training'.
A syndicate of mining firms has, between 2000 and 2007, distributed the sum of 16,000,000 Euros to leading unions to 'ease dialogue'.
16,000,000 million Euros in cash, that is. Untraceable since leaving the syndicate's coffers.
2007 is a long time ago....it has taken that time to get the case to court: remember that bosses and unions are on a par with government as France's social actors, none of whom like too much light shone on their financial activities.
But it goes a long way to explain what any ordinary French person could tell you: the unions have completely failed to represent 92% of the French workforce and their demonstrations only serve to maintain their position of power vis a vis bosses and government.
If the French really take to the streets in protest against the state of society you can be sure of one thing....the unions won't be organising it.