FRANCE

We’re all stuck in a social elevator says French union

In these modern times, it's a lift that takes you from one rung of the social ladder to the next. And in France, the lift is out of order. This is the scenario for a new French comedy, produced by a trade union. Seven colleagues, all desperate to get to the next level, but stuck in the lift. It's certainly funny, but will it attract people to get involved in unions? Read more and watch the clips...

Advertising

Disgruntled workers complain. One banner reads "Death to internships!"

In these modern times, it's a lift that takes you from one rung of the social ladder to the next. And in France, the lift is out of order. This is the scenario for a new French comedy, produced by a trade union. Seven colleagues, all desperate to get to the next level, but stuck in the lift. It's certainly funny, but will it attract people to get involved in unions?

With only 8% of France's working population involved in trade unions, the country has the lowest percentage of trade unionists in Europe, while the UK boasts 30% and Germany 23%. Now one of France's top five unions, the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), has decided to take action against the dwindling numbers in time for major union elections in December. Written by Stéphanie Sphyras, "Dark Elevator" lends its style to British comedy The Office, and hopes to revive the stick-in-the-mud stereotype of the traditional trade unionist.

The "job market Olympic Games" episode

Live from the social elevator, workers compete for a permanent work contract in the public service.

The first test is "boot licking". Each candidate has their own personal technique... Alexandre makes a mistake and gets disqualified. He doesn't understand why he's no good at the sport: "I've been bootlicking for ten years now!"

Test two is "destroying social benefits". Carole succeeds in getting rid of the minimum wage and paid holidays, but she can't destroy the 35 hour working week. She's punished with ten years of job insecurity.

Next up is "tent jumping". If you're eager to live in a tent you're rewarded. Laurent wins. "I've been making sacrifices for years" he says. "I knew it would pay off one day". He gets the public service contract- working for the riot police, which are known for confrontations with protestors. When he leaves his colleagues, dressed in blue with baton and plastic shield, he says to the group "Well, we'll probably see each other again soon".

You can see more Dark Elevator episodes here.

"French union centres (…) seem more willing and able to challenge 'authority'"

Dr Gerry Strange is a Reader in Political Economy at the University of Lincoln, UK.  He has published widely on the relationship between British trade unionism and the European Union.

Back in 'The Day', as we say over here, British unions would have been interested and active in this form of satirical interventionism.  May Day, for example, used to be a time for all kinds of trade union 'festive' political interventions celebrating the Movement, its achievements and on-going struggles.  Local trade union networks might stage plays [and] an evening of appropriate song, poetry, comedy and so on. Unfortunately, traditional British trade unionism (...) has never really recovered from the dark days of Thatcherism.

By contrast, French civil society in which some, at least, of the French union centres, [are] more receptive to radical social ideas, including satirical and 'situationist' critiques, and seem more willing and able to challenge 'authority'.  I can't help but be reminded of Michael Moore's film, Sicko, [in which] it was noted that what makes Americans different from the French is the grim-faced despondency with which they, the Americans, tend to accept their subordination to the 'authority' of the market system (...). In America, the film noted, the people fear the state, whereas in France, the state fears the people. Sadly, British people, tend to be more like Americans."

"We [the unions] were thought of as very a closed group and old-fashioned"

Dominique Bertrand is the general secretary of "social protection and work" at the CFTC and on the board of advisors.

We had a long debate about whether to start using new media. And what we concluded was that we weren't setting out to please our members but to reach out to a larger public in order to get more members. My personal point of view about the project is not important- it's whether it had an impact or not that is. And I have noticed that I have contacts that I didn't have before. People don't see us like zombies anymore. Before, we were thought of as very a closed group and old-fashioned. Our exact message might not come across straight away in the videos, but we're presenting ourselves as an organisation that's interested in people and their problems. And that works."

"The Protest" episode

Still stuck in the social elevator; the seven employees are holding a demonstration. But as a punishment, their employers have cut off the electricity. It's André, the oldest member of the workforce, who came up with the idea originally. So he's asked by the others to apologise to the bosses (who are contactable through the intercom).

When he asks the bosses to resume negotiations, and forgive him for protesting, the voice asks him to find a new slogan for spending power. After two tries (the first being "spending power is shit") he starts to chant "spending power, it's going well". The lights are switched back on. But when he returns to his colleagues, he makes the mistake of saying sarcastically "I can't believe we're living in a free state". The lights disappear again... until the entire group chants "spending power, it's going well" repeatedly.

"The CFTC weren’t too sure what they wanted (…) we were left to our own devices"

Stéphanie Sphyras co-wrote Dark Elevator with Benoit N'Guyen Tat and Guillaume Cremonese. They work for the production company Coute Focale.

We didn't work directly with the CFTC union as they had commissioned the project to an agency, which then approached us. They weren't too sure what they wanted, except to change their image and to launch a viral advert, so we were left to our own devices. It's not often you get to work with so much freedom, so we took the time to really explore the subject we were working on. When we handed over the first draft, they hardly asked us to change it at all.

The comedians in the show are professional actors and not necessarily trade unionists. Me myself I'm not an activist and neither are the rest of the team. We wanted to create something that questioned the problems that affect us, like job insecurity, which is a problem for many artists. We all jumped at the chance and did even more than was asked of us."