What's Up With Those Strikes in France?


Since I’ve been home for the holidays, relatives and old friends have been asking me, “are you affected by all that striking going on in Paris?” The answer is yes–a thousand times yes. Paris has been paralyzed for nearly four weeks now, in its biggest demonstration since 1995. In case you’re not sure what’s going on, here’s the basics.

Student Strike, Nantes 2016
Why are people so mad?

We’ll start with the president, Emmanuel Macron. He took office in 2017 to quite a bit of fanfare, as his new party, centrist En marche! beat out the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. It was an unprecedented election since neither of the two main parties, republicains or socialistes were in the final running. To put this on American terms, it’d be as though neither the Democrats nor the Republicans ended up in the race, and we were choosing between the Green Party and the Tea Party, though those are not equivalent parties policy-wise. Regardless, a big deal.

To (over)simplify, Macron’s trying to be a progressive guy, bringing France up to speed with Western economic powers. It sounded great at first, but many, if not most French people don’t agree with the way he’s going about it. His previous supporters are becoming increasingly disappointed, and people like my anarchist Parisian boyfriend are muttering through gritted teeth, I knew it

Just in time for last year’s yellow vest protests to die down a bit, he proposed a pension reform. Surprise! Nobody likes it. 

Demonstrations Rennes 2017

The basics of the reform are this: all of the 40+ special retirement plans for government employees will be combined into one points-based system, and the general retirement age will go from 62 to 64. It most affects the sectors with one of those special pensions, like Paris Opera dancers, for example, who normally retire at 42 to give their joints a rest. Macron claims that this will reform a flawed system and cut back on the expense of their far-reaching welfare state, but others claim that the deficit isn’t as dire as he projects, and that it will promote private pension plans to the detriment of their public services. It doesn’t help that the commissioner of the reform, Jean-Paul Delevoye, was found to have ties with private insurers who would benefit from his plan.

This brings us to December 5th, the first day of what is feeling like an eternal strike. Did Paris ever have more than two métros? Was there a time our feet and lower backs weren’t sore from walking? I can’t remember; it seems but a fantasy of ages past…

How is it affecting Paris?

This strike is going on throughout France, but with Paris’s extensive public transport system being stalled, it’s made the most impact here. It’s also where I live, so there’s your first-person account.

Student Strike, Nantes 2016

Normally, Paris has 16 functioning métro lines, 5 RER lines, and plenty of trams and buses that can get you where you want to go, despite some pushing and shoving around rush hour. For over three weeks now, the strikes have reduced this to two fully functioning métro lines, four or five partially-functioning lines, a smattering of RERs, and some buses and trams that are so crowded you might not be able to fit inside.

As for me, for the first week I had to sleep at my boyfriend’s aunt’s house in order to get to work (while he slept elsewhere–it was a lot of bonding with the in-laws), and then they opened up just enough of one of my métros to allow me to return home. Granted, my commute became 20 minutes of métro followed by a 45 minute walk. 

Some of my coworkers who live farther away have had to sleep at friends’ houses for weeks, scramble to find nannies or babysitters when the daycares closed for lack of personnel, or simply stayed home without a paycheck.

It’s rough out here, and it doesn’t look like it’ll end any time soon.

Demonstrations Rennes 2017
So whose side are you on, Julia?

I’d like for the strikes to end. Everybody would. The question is, who’s at fault? Is it a tone-deaf government or stubborn, power-hungry unions? On one hand, it’s hard for me to understand this amount of outrage over a retirement age of 64. Where I come from, it’s 65, if you’re lucky. Plus, France has so many other benefits that boggle my capitalist American upbringing–cheap or free colleges, universal healthcare, etc–that I’m tempted to shrug this reform off. 

On the other hand, they have a right to fight for what they want, and I respect the fact that they do so. My country might have a later retirement age, less vacation, and fewer benefits, but that doesn’t mean France has to follow our lead. 

So has it gone too far? Maybe. It could always go farther. But at least they’re participating, doing more than sharing a petition on Change.org, in order to protect a system they’re proud of. We’ll just have to see, hopefully soon, if those who are putting up a fight that claims to be for the people will have been worth the strain.

In the meantime, at least we’re getting our 10,000 steps in.

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