22 October 2007

The Peasants Are Revolting!

We are not amused: Louis XIV would never have stood for this...

The transit strike in France slumbers fitfully these days. There are brief stoppages, and I glimpsed a half-hearted protest demonstration that blocked most of the traffic in the Place de Clichy at lunchtime yesterday. But I don’t think anybody seriously believes that this baby is down for the night. Sooner or later, the “social movement” will begin again in earnest, and nothing at all will move anymore.

The strike began last week, on Thursday morning, just in time for the arrival of several friends from the States. There is nothing like a labor uprising to win the heart of a conservative Christian lady from Texas. Nevertheless, my friends greeted the circumstances with an admirable mixture of curiosity, ingenuity, and good cheer. I was the one who got screwed.

...Not in these heels, anyway.

I was in Beynes, and I missed the last train on Wednesday evening. I knew the strike was coming, but I made the mistake of believing the union officials who assured us that the strike would last only a day.

Obviously, the rank-and-file union members weren’t entirely convinced, and it’s become clear that there are factions or splinter groups of the big transit unions who simply didn’t watch television, read newspapers, listen to the radio, or access the Internet: they didn’t get the message. They continued to strike on Friday. The officials assured us that would be the end of it. But again, the message didn’t come across to everybody. Saturday saw persistent “important perturbations” in the subway and commuter trains. Buses were running, if you could squeeze onto one. I couldn’t. Though I managed to return from Beynes, I couldn’t find public transport to bring me anywhere near my apartment. So I walked, nearly four miles, while carrying baggage. (Once I arrived, I had to climb six flights of stairs. We have no elevator in this building. But that is not the strikers’ fault.)

We were assured that Saturday was absolutely, positively the last day of the strike (for now). Naturally, on Sunday, the strike continued in isolated pockets. These included the RER train to Versailles: my friends and I arrived on the platform just in time to hear an announcement that “technical problems” required the suspension of service. Thinking quickly, we went to the Gare Montparnasse, where we caught a perfectly charming train that ran just fine. We opted for the RER for our return trip, only to sit in the train at the platform for more than an hour. This time, there was no announcement, no explanation, and precious little warning when the train did pull out. When we emerged at last at the Invalides, there was an announcement that the strike on the RER C line would continue all day Sunday — and Monday, as well. This was the first anybody had bothered to mention it, and of course the announcement flatly contradicted the officials of the unions involved.

A high-speed train, motionless: This is quite normal.
I am surprised you even notice it.

Now I’m not complaining, particularly, because everybody’s got such stories to tell. We were luckier, because I speak French, than the thousands of British and South African tourists who descended on Paris this weekend for the Rugby World Cup finals, to say nothing of all the Irish, Scottish, and New Zealander fans who never left town after their teams were eliminated.

When Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned for president, last spring, he vowed to change the pension plan for government employees (and these include transit workers, because the state runs all the transit systems). He also vowed to require “minimum service” on transit lines during all strikes.

Obviously the unions are having none of that. Granted, the French people generally agree that their economy is cruising toward disaster, and that the pension program is unworkable (not least because so many enterprises are state-owned, with the result that some 60 percent of the population are civil servants eligible for federal pensions), like a cancer on the nation’s long-term health. And yet you will walk a very long time before you find anybody, anywhere in this country, who is willing to make any improvement or change; any sacrifices must be those of someone else, and heaven forbid if I receive so much as a scratch in whatever surgery you undertake to remove the cancer. No, no, we must defend our right (and in their eyes, it is a right) to short workweeks, long vacations, child care, and universal health care in low-skill, high-paying jobs from which we cannot be fired, and from which we will retire at age 50 or 55 with full pension and benefits.

On the one hand, one sympathizes with the striking workers. They signed a contract when they took their jobs, and they expect the government to live up to its agreement. If the country’s economic problems are so dire, why are the unions being singled out to make the first sacrifice? Does the government hold them in such low esteem? I daresay it’s hard to show up and work an honest day when it seems your boss finds you beneath contempt.

Really, the strike is mostly a warning: Sarkozy hasn’t even begun his reforms. He has barely proposed any. So if he thinks the strikes are bad right now, he is free to imagine how much worse they’ll be if his reforms are radical, or even realistic.

Since the Revolution, every French government has lived in fear of popular uprising, and very often the behavior of the citizenry has justified that fear. To this day, the French take to the streets in protest at the drop of a hat, sending even the most ardently reformist governments into panicky retreat. Most Americans find this absolutely mystifying. We’d much sooner call out the National Guard and blast the protesters back to the Stone Age.

Lovely day for a walk: Members of the chief labor union,
In a different strike, in another town.

But Americans are mystified, too, by the French workers’ arguments. The cushiness of a French transit worker’s lot is unimaginable to most of us. We enjoy none — none — of the Frenchman’s benefits, and yet we somehow muddle through. Why can’t these people suck it up and move forward, for the good of their country?

As I puttered around the gilded halls and infinite gardens of the Château of Versailles, and the next day as I climbed the Leftist stronghold of Montmartre, I contemplated the enduring, sometimes violent tension in this country between the forces of order and the forces of freedom. France has seen a continuing cycle of chaos followed by repression, and although this week’s strike is a mild example, it’s nevertheless proof that the cycle continues. The French seem comfortable with these revolutions; they are awfully good at them. They have had a lot of practice. It is almost a sport to them, a way to stretch the muscles and a topic for discussion in cafés. Provided you can actually get to your café from here, Monsieur.

UPDATE, 24 October: Some railway unions continued to strike Tuesday, while announcing another round of “important perturbations” for today: seven full days of a strike supposed to last only one. A general strike that would include all civil servants (including teachers, postal employees, etc.) is under consideration for 20 November.