Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Le Grève…or How to Get A Day Off School

I don’t have to go to school today…na na ne boo boo! I didn’t have to get up early and trek the two miles to the University because today we’re in the throes…again…of the French national sport…Le Grève or The Strike.

The French are known for their passion for striking. Government workers are the most frenetic. This includes postal workers, public school employees and utility workers. Transportation workers are equally enthusiastic and even students get into the act.

There has been unrest for months now and things started winding up Friday.  I had an appointment at 9 am. Sharp. I could not be late. I arrived at the bus stop at 8:15 in order to catch the bus at 8:20 and get to my appointment 20 minutes early. I waited for bus number 3. It didn’t show. Bus 4 passed; followed by bus 1, then number 23…then another number 4…and another number 1!  There should be a number 3 in between each of these! No number 3. I’m checking my watch as I pace and others are just leaving. Finally when the third number 4 stopped, I jumped on and asked the driver why I’d been waiting 40 minutes for number 3. He said he wasn’t sure but perhaps it was because of the manifestation.

So I’m standing there, wondering what this all means and why only bus number 3 is on some sort of strike. Finally I asked a lady standing next to me, who also appeared late…but not nearly as worried about it as I (the French don’t ever seem to worry very much about being late). She said, in fact, the students at the junior high (a college in French) down the road were holding a manifestation (a public demonstration) and they had blocked the main road that travels the periphery of the city; the road bus 3 has to travel on its route.  She said they had completely blocked the road for hours, this was the second day and they would probably do it again tomorrow.

“What are they mad about?” I asked.

She replied that, of course, the manifestation was in response to the government’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

Oh sure, when I was 13, I could think of nothing else but my looming retirement and exactly what age I would be before I got to enjoy it.  It was on my mind night and day. I was such a wreck!

In fact, the pimply-faced little hormones-in-overdrive are strikers in training.  I think this was not a manifestation…it was an internship!  And who doesn’t want a few mornings off of school anyway?

So what’s the fuss? The French government has voted to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and move back the age of full-benefit retirement from 65 to 67. If I’ve read things correctly, that’s exactly the policy in the U.S.

A huge deficit and enormous expenses burden the French government because it’s an extraordinarily top-heavy government. Declining birth rates are leaving a very few to pay for the retirement of many. Sound familiar?

And in fact, the French retirement is longer and benefits more expensive because not only can they retire earlier but they also live longer. According to the C.I.A. 2010 estimates, France has the 8th highest life-expectancy rate in the world. The U.S. is 49th…just above Albania!  In case you’re wondering, Macau is first. Ever heard of it?

So it would follow that something needs to be done. Right? Not if French workers have anything to do with it.

The strangest thing about French strikes is they are the first “words” in the process of negotiations. In France, the opposing sides do not sit down, discuss, attempt to pound out an agreement, sit some more, pound some more, and then if all else fails…call a strike. The workers strike as a way of opening talks. And…they strike for each other. If the teachers are upset that they are expected to do more work for the same pay, the railroad workers/ air traffic controllers/ post office employees (pick one or all of the above) become their buddy-strikers.

Sometimes it’s just really hard to get anywhere or get anything done around here!

Last month, on the way to Marseille, my friend Claire and I nearly got caught up in a 30-mile traffic jam on the autoroute. Apparently, the carnival companies, (the people that travel from village festival to village festival with their tilt-a-whirls, ring toss games, and smelly stuffed animals), were upset that nobody was hiring them. (This is of course because these are tough times… the little villages ain’t got no money) So they took to the freeway, piled their trucks up 3 across and miles deep and stopped all traffic to the country’s second major city.  For hours! Well that should really solve the problem!  I’ll bet the little village boards were just scrambling to see who could be the first hire the carnies for next year. Sort of as an apology.

Today apparently I’m benefiting from this free-for-all form of liberty and equality because a general strike as been called. Nobody is really sure whom this might involve and I’m not all that happy about it. I like school.  My professor was going to have class anyway because, as she told us, we paid for it. But since 

1. Most of the professors will be on strike as well as the students...

2. Any of the students who need to take the bus into town won’t get there...

3. It will take her 2 hours to get to work because the narrow peripheral roads will be jammed with the cars of those who normally use public transportation...

4. The electric workers will most likely shut off the University’s electricity...

...we decided to add 30 minutes each day to our class until we make up the time.

So I’m sitting here wondering what sort of strike I should go on today. I could schedule a sit-down outside of the driver’s license office until they let me have the license they’ve refused me. I could stage a hunger strike in front of the prefecture until they finally give me my second year carte de sejour which I filled out all the paper work for in April. I even could picket the office of Securite Sociale because they denied my student health insurance. They said I lied about my income (in fact they inverted the conversion rates from dollars to euros and thus inflated my income…their mistake not mine). I could do all of that I suppose. But there will probably be no one in those offices anyway. Because of that darned buddy system.




  1. And if there were to be anyone, you, as an individual making a protest would be disregarded.
    Only a 'collective' is allowed..in the French mind..to matter.

    Anyway, an award for you over on mine...some of us are not on strike...You don't have to do anything about it..it is just a thank you for all the fun I have reading your blog.

  2. What a pain it all is. I got caught up in a march in Angouleme last month, and now I am in fear of my husband not being able to arrive at Limoges airport on Thursday!!! He is only coming here for one day so no room for changes!!!! Diane

  3. Fly-You're right...."individuality" isn't a keyword here. Regarde...all the black clothing! And thank you so much for the award. oh gosh...oh geez....somebody likes me!

    Diane- Welcome to my blog. I hope he's able to get through. They're talking about doing this again tomorrow but I haven't heard that Thursday is involved. Good luck and thank you so much for dropping by.

  4. When we feel the urge to strike, then we know we have become French!
    Your 'strikers in training' comment cracked me up by the way :-)

  5. In England there is a semi-envious feeling at the bargaining power that can be mustered by French workers striking - the thing is that once one lives in France you realise that most of the causes are not that important in the bigger scheme of things. They are usually about fairly insignificant things - well, I think so anyway.

    As for *the French don’t ever seem to worry very much about being late* - we found that out each time we invited neighbours round for aperos or Sunday afternoon tea!

  6. Sara-I also seem to be fighting this terrible urge to be late! It's creeping....slowly...into my blood!

    FF-I know...I think they'd strike if they had a problem with dry skin caused by shuffling too many papers! It's actually "against the rules" to show up on time for a dinner party. I was schooled early on!

  7. My husband, the ex-Union president, would be in heaven in a place that offers such a degree of solidarity!

  8. Bonjour Delana ~ Amazing!! I mean who do they think is going to pay for their retirement?? here in Australia the minimum retirement age for men is 65 years and that is going to slowly rise because people are living longer. We need more people in the work-force to be paying the taxes to support retirees. makes good sense!!

  9. SJD- the problem is, it really feels more like a jumbled mess than solidarity. I can't help feeling there is a more efficient way to accomplish goals. Talking being one of them.

    Dianne-I had a little "discussion" with a french friend the other day about this. When I asked him who should pay for the deficit caused by so many longer living retirees, he matter-of-factly replied, "the government". I simply had no reply for that form of logic.

  10. I won't put you throuh a rehash of a conversation I had with an otherwise reasonable and intelligent French friend of mine.

    But those students being indoctrinated in the 'passions' of '68! Oy. I'm so with you on this. Let's think about the cost to the government engendered by all the extra security forces brought in on overtime natch to handle all the scenes.

    Let's consider the French national football team also finding it acceptable (in S.Africa) to go on strike. DURING the World Cup.

    Then compare all this chaos with the English, who are facing far more stringent austerity measures. Please. Great article (it got me worked up all over again!)

  11. Late to the party here. I just linked off your sidebar as "strike" is on my mind. I'm flying from San Francisco to Marseille, arriving Friday, and Air France is warning that the schedule may be affected by a strike of maintenance workers. Sigh.

    I arrived in Paris this very day, October 12, last year. The train strike that day prompted my very first driving experience in France. The day I returned the car, there was a strike affecting fuel supplies. Dropped it off at the rental place driving on fumes.


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