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.