Autumn in France means three things: Beaujolais, soccer, and strikes. It was probably only a matter of time before the French combined two of their national pastimes. The owners of the country’s top two soccer leagues (called, appropriately, Ligue 1 and Ligue 2) yesterday voted to stage a soccer strike. During the last weekend in November, no games will be played.
Americans are accustomed to the spectacle of sports strikes—in the U.S., professional sports are one of the last bastions of private sector unionization. Yet unlike when Major League Baseball or National Hockey League players stage a walkout, this dispute is between team owners and the government. It’s being called to protest President Francois Hollande’s 75 percent marginal tax on all salaries over 1 million euros.
Hollande, a socialist, made the tax a central plank of his campaign last year. In its original form it was to be paid by wealthy workers, but after being struck down by France’s highest court as unconstitutionally high, it was shifted to employers. That’s why it’s the teams, rather than the players, that are striking, asking for an exemption from the tax. Many French teams operate at a loss—Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 reportedly lost $149 million in total last season—and owners complain that the strike could put many of them out of business.
Traditionally, France’s top teams have not been big spenders, at least when compared with those in Spain, England, and Italy. As a result, the country has a long tradition of producing superstar soccer players like Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, and Thierry Henry through its world-class youth programs, then losing them to clubs elsewhere that can pay far more.
Still, compared with the average French business, professional soccer teams employ a disproportionately high number of millionaires. And that number is climbing as the Russian oligarchs and Persian Gulf sheikhs who have been buying up teams elsewhere in Europe have turned to France: The Qatar Investment Authority last year bought the club Paris Saint-Germain, and has gone on a spending spree. PSG alone would owe 20 million euros this year under Hollande’s tax, according to a report on the France 2 television station.
It can be a surprise for an American to witness the sympathy most French people extend to striking workers, despite the disruption and inconvenience strikes can entail. Art Goldhammer, a researcher at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and a writer on French politics, points out that even during a notorious 1995 transit strike that paralyzed the country, there was widespread support for the strikers. “In general, strikes do command a substantial degree of support,” he says. It’s only when strikers resort to “relatively violent tactics like threatening to blow up factories or holding managers hostage,” he says, that public opinion turns against them.
Or, it turns out, when the strikers are the wealthy owners of soccer teams. A poll conducted yesterday by Tilder-LCI-OpinionWay found that 85 percent of the French do not think the soccer teams should be exempted from the tax, and 83 percent are against the strike. The politics of soccer stars and taxes are fraught: Lionel Messi, an Argentine widely considered the best player in the world, is battling charges of tax fraud in Spain, where he plays professionally. President Hollande said today that the French teams would not be exempted from the tax. So far, France’s sports moguls are pretty much alone on the barricades.