The French On Strike – Again!!

Friday the 13th:   Day Nine of the transportation strike and I’m sick and tired of it.

But although I complain about being under house arrest (our nearest metro is closed, buses are irregular and the one day we foolishly decided to take the car we spent two hours getting only a fourth of the way to our destination and had to turn around and go back home), I’m one of the lucky ones. My office has always been chez moi and I can walk to a nearby café to write. People who aren’t so lucky get out of bed at 4 or 5 am to try to catch an over- crowded commuter train to Paris, line up in front of buses and metros hoping they’ll be able to squish in and find a place, take cars that barely move in the monstrous traffic jams around and in cities.  I’ve got to hand it to the French: their sheer determination and grit is worthy of admiration.

Even if I had never read a French newspaper or watched French TV, I would know something big was happening just by going to my local metro station and finding it closed. Buses run up and down the street but they are irregular with horrendously long waits and so many people stuffed into them that even you couldn’t get in if you wanted to.  As I walk up my street to buy my bread and cheese and vegetables and fish and meat, I see long lines of cars trying to get into the traffic circle to go in their different directions.  The honking of horns grows louder as buses and big trucks get stuck in the circle. An ambulance, its siren wailing, tries in vain to wedge in and continue its journey.  I pity the poor invalid inside.

The fascinating thing about all this is that a great majority of French people support the strikers in spite of the inconvenience and trouble it causes them personally.  A common phrase you hear is “It’s a real pain but the strikers are right to continue.”

Every once in a while a TV reporter will challenge that seemingly prevalent view by interviewing a hotel director who notes that the number of cancellations has drastically  increased or a butcher whose meat is not getting delivered or a small shopkeeper who has lost so much business she fears having to close her store.  

What, you may ask, are these street protests all about?

In a nutshell, a new pension plan for French workers that would replace the one set up at the end of World War II by Charles de Gaulle who wanted the country to get back on its feet and fast. He allowed each job sector to organize and oversee their own retirement programs with different dates for retirement and different perks. Under this system, forty-two pension plans were set up for groups ranging from railway workers to ballet dancers. While most French workers retire at age 62, train conductors can, for example, retire at age 52.  Different strokes for different folks.

No one likes to give up an acquired privilege and most French people dislike and distrust the very idea of reform.  On top of that, Macron, who I admire for taking on the challenge of replacing an unfair and antiquated pension system with a a unified one missed the boat when trying to explain just exactly what the workers would GAIN from it.  

So here we are on Day Nine with a huge strike announced for next Tuesday and threats of prolonging transport slowdowns until Christmas. Everyone is wondering: how long can this last? Who will win?

Strikes are nothing new in France. The French demonstrate regularly and see it as an inalienable right. If you live in France long enough, you’ll see plenty of manifestations – even if you may never get used to them. 

By sheer coincidence, I am reading a novel called The Art of Regret by writer Mary Fleming, an American in Paris who knows France and the French well. The protagonist is the unenthusiastic owner of a bicycle shop who has no ambition in life and does nothing to attract customers. But it’s 1995 and suddenly a prolonged strike brings hordes of desperate clients to his shop, upsetting his plans for an apathetic existence.  I was here during the three week strike in 1995 the author evokes.  Describing the situation during a family gathering, one of the characters remarks that “change in France always occurs through conflict.”

Truer words were never spoken.  

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