A Martian in France

Letter from Paris

March 2023

You don’t need to be a Martian to find French behaviour strange and mysterious, sometimes charming and curious, other times vaguely unsettling. You can simply be a citizen of any other country that is NOT France!

I have been observing and cataloguing the strange and mysterious, curious and charming aspects of French behavior ever since I arrived in France in 1971.  All these years later, I hardly blink an eye at most of the cultural differences that intrigued or upset me early on. 

Strikes – A HUGE Cultural Difference

There is one typically French phenomenon, though, that I have not and never will get used to: the French love for strikes and street protests. Every time the government proposes an unpopular measure, no matter the issue, no matter the government, “the people” take to the streets to protest.  They bring out their banners and whistles and flares and, in Paris, generally march from the Bastille to Nation, the traditional working-class parts of the city (you do not see demonstratorsin the cushy arrondissements unless you count the Yellow Jackets and their invasion of the Champs-Elysées and other wealthy parts of the city in 2018, a real – and unwelcome – first).  

Strikes are on my mind these days (1) because on March 13 I will be meeting with a group of American university students attending the International Media Seminar at the American University in Paris and (2) they will be here in the midst of a period the French call “social unrest”.  For some, it is their first visit to France; others have never been out of the States. I am trying to imagine their reaction to a French strike – and wondering how I will get to speak to them if there is no metro or bus to take me there!

The French strike a lot. This particular one, which may turn out to be the mother of all strikes, is against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plan which would push back the current retirement age from 62 to 64.  The French are furious at the idea of working two additional years and in time-honored fashion have taken to the streets to say so.  Not ALL the French by any means –  among the demonstrators are civil servants, young people (lots of young people), people with low paying jobs. You won’t see small shopkeepers and owners of small businesses as well as executives in large companies. They’re too busy working!

Even though the mammoth demonstration (excuse me – the 265 different demonstrations that will take place all over France)  announced for Tuesday, March 7 will be over by the time the students arrive, from all indications the merry month of March will be anything but merry. The strikes are renewable so we all need to be ready to deal with metros and trams and trains that are running slowly if at all, flights that are cancelled, roads blocked by trucks carrying food that won’t get to the stores.   And while we’re at it, gas shortages and electricity cuts. 

Bringing the French Economy to its Knees 

In reply to an interviewer’s question on a French public TV station today, “Do you want to bring the economy to a halt?” the leader of the Communist Chemical Energy Federation, replied “If you mean do we want to bring the French economy to its knees, then the answer is ‘yes’.” Chilling, n’est-ce-pas?  

Not only does the Left disapprove (that’s being polite) of the proposed reform, it positively despises President Emmanuel Macron.  He is young and filled with self-confidence. He is clean shaven and dressed like a banker because (horror!) he WAS a banker, a partner at the Banque Rothschild.  He uses an extensive vocabulary because he is well-educated (a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale de l’Administration) and, it is true, he makes little effort to dumb down his speech. He is widely seen as insensitive to the working class and has aggravated that accusation with a few choice remarks. One was made when a young fellow on unemployment complained that he had not found work;  Macron, rather than sympathizing, advised him to “Just cross the street and you’ll find a job”.  That knee jerk reaction did little to help his reputation as an arrogant unfeeling capitalist. Oh, by the way, I am a capitalist as well, although I hope that I am not arrogant and unfeeling. But you should know that in many circles in France, “capitalist” is a dirty word.  

The French Retirement System and the Need for Reform

Just a word about the French retirement system which was created in 1945. It is very different than the U.S. system. In the French system, contributions from all workers’ salaries are placed in a giant kitty and each year the total contribution of active workers is used to finance the retirees. Retirement is not employer dependent and it is not  linked to the stock market –  and the French are proud to have it that way.   You can see the slogan “No to capitalization” on many of the banners people hold as they march during demonstrations. 

So why reform a good system?  Times have changed since 1945, the French are working fewer hours and there are fewer active workers to pay for the growing number of retirees.    For President Macron, it is clear that if France is to keep its current retirement system, the only solution is to increase the number of years that active workers work.  The unions disagree  – and 75 per cent of the population agree with the unions.  Do they have a better solution? Sure!  “Tax the rich!”  (Former Socialist President Francois Hollande famously opined that a rich person is someone who earns more than 4000 euros a month).  Where he got that figure no one knows and of course that would make him rich as well! And being “rich” in France is nothing anyone would want to advertise….

Le modèle français

One last remark:  If you point out to the French that even at 64, their retirement age is still lower than in many other European countries, in particular Germany, they shrug their shoulders.  In general, the French do not compare themselves with or wish to model themselves after other countries. The French may gesticulate and complain and gripe but they cherish their 35-hour work week,  minimum five week paid vacation, and a social system that ensures health care and retirement for all. The French call that  “the French model” (le modèle français) and  think that others should imitate them

The Calm Before the Storm

For the moment we are in between strikes and it is eerily quiet in the streets of Paris.  Not a demonstration in sight. That is because it’s school vacation time, and vacations in France, like strikes and demonstrations, are sacred.  The strikers are tired of striking, the demonstrators of demonstrating, the politicians of gesticulating and isn’t it nice to repair to the sea shore or the mountains or the country for two weeks of paid vacation with friends. Hey, you can’t be indignant all the time.

Not to worry. This is the calm before the storm. Having endured many French strikes (how could one not when living in France?) I am steeling myself for whatever happens.  I have not forgotten another massive protest against a retirement reform agenda (once again) in 1995.  And here’s the most amazing thing about it:  Although it lasted six weeks (yes, six weeks!), it didn’t turn people against the strikers. Au contraire – non striking workers hitchhiked and hoofed it all over Paris and stayed overnight with friends as they continued to show up at their jobs in spite of no metros or trains. 

And, more importantly,  to my utter amazement no one protested against the protesters and the utter havoc they were wreaking!   

Maybe this time around I will also grin and bear it and sympathize with the strikers “right to protest”?  

Not so sure that I’ll ever get to be that French!

Quel pays! What a country!

4 thoughts on “A Martian in France”

  1. Jackie Smith, from TravelnWrite, sent me a link to your post. I enjoyed reading your. work very much. Perhaps I missed it, but didn’t see a place to sign up to receive your posts directly when released.
    Regardless, thank you for your thoughtful and interesting work.
    Sharon Howard
    Seattle, WA

    1. Hello, Thanks for your note. Did you try to log in to my site? There may be a problem and if so, do let me know so that I can straighten it out. Would love to have you sign up.

  2. Harriet:
    For some perspective… In 1960 the life expectancy in France was 69.39 and in 2022 it had risen to 82.18. So, the French were living 12.79 years longer while the statutory retirement age was rolled back from 65 to 62. In the US the retirement age has gone from 65 to 67. It’s all about expectations and the month of August.

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