Monday, November 19, 2007
Strike season is in full swing in France, and now that the transportation strike is almost a week old, it’s getting, well...old. Before I go further, however, I think I should make a few things clear. First of all, let’s define what a strike actually is in France. Unlike American strikes, which are rare, no-holds-barred, nitty-gritty affairs where no one in the affected sector works or gets paid; French strikes are frequent and almost always some form of work slow-down where services continue to operate, but at a reduced level—not enough to bring things to a grinding halt, but just enough to really mess up your day. Whereas in the US strikes mean impenetrable picket lines, fevered slogan chanting, teeth-gnashing, and a rash of rentals of the film “Norma Rae,” in France strikes mean political posturing, media hoopla, massive inconvenience, and endless rounds of TV panel discussions.
In France, you’ll hear the Average Joe or Josephine complaining almost as loudly as the striking workers, since it’s usually the general public that takes the brunt of the inconveniences. For the striking workers, on the other hand, you get the impression it is their hour of glory. Not only do they finally get to be front and center in the political debate, but they also get to make idealistic statements that are actually heard and bring up issues that are actually discussed. And when the parties finally come to the table, the first issue to be hammered out is how much the workers will be paid for the days they were on strike. This is not to say that strikes are a fun-fest for affected workers, or that they don’t have very legitimate beefs (and very few options for making their voices heard other than striking). This is just to point out that there is a difference in intensity and aura between French strikes and their American counterparts.
One essential ingredient of a French strike is the manif. This is short for manifestation, or demonstration/protest march. Contrary to what you may hear in the US news, manifs are usually quite peaceful, if noisy, and include loud music, chanting, and even the occasional dance step. At this point you may be asking yourself what is the difference between a manif and a rock concert, and at times I would be hard-pressed to tell you. Depending on the intensity of the demands and the length of the strike, manifs can have almost a festive air. When I lived in Avignon, one sunny day hundreds of joyous school teachers and other civil servants blocked the streets for hours, and when the whole thing was over they all repaired to the nearest café to partake in an apéro (early evening drink).
But to get back to the current transport strike. Well, at first it didn’t bother me too much. Strikes are announced in advance, so with a little careful searching of train schedules, I got around. And a lot of people took the first day or two off, so the trains were almost less crowded than normal. It was kind of a challenge to find a route in and around the city, but one that you could easily rise to. And then, there are all those Velib' bike stands (see my Oct. 2 post "Velib' Liberates Paris") where you can borrow a bike to get to where you need to go. Some of the Métro lines are almost functioning normally, so it wasn’t really too bad. But then, the other night, I found myself on the Number 4 line at 10pm on a Saturday. Trains on this line were running once every 40 minutes or so and a crowd of rowdy young people (am I really so old that I’m calling them “young people?”) had gathered on the platform. When the train finally came, those of us who could wedged ourselves into the overstuffed car. For the youngsters, all in various states of inebriation, it was clearly an adventure. For older bags like me (notice I said “older,” not “old”) it was a royal pain, and for people who have to commute to work I’m sure it’s a major drag.
I fail to see where making millions of working people suffer on their way to and from their jobs is going to win the strikers any fans, but I guess popular support is not what the strike is all about. When it started it was about when train workers get to retire, then it spread into the universities, where students are unhappy about reforms, and now the teachers are walking off their jobs to protest...well, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ll have to entertain my 5-year-old at home tomorrow and there still are no trains to the Gare St-Lazare.