The French are attempting to hold on to that spirit of revolution
I had known since arriving here that les greves would be taking place often—NYU warned us that the metro may be effected by them. Having no TV, and not wanting to be tied down to my computer, and also because I’m using this semester as a sort of break from how much the world is falling apart (because I’ve been too caught up with that during these past few years)—I was completely ignorant to the situation surrounding les greves for the first few weeks I was here. I knew that they were striking because Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, but I didn’t know there were actual huge weekly protests! I just assumed it was more of a boycott, where workers didn’t show up to work and therefore everything in Paris ran a little less efficiently that day. Boy, was I wrong—I learned of how big the greves actually are about three weeks after arriving.
Often, they march from the Bastille to Nation then up to Republique. The road leading from the Bastille to Nation is Rue Faubourg Saint Antoine, which I live right off of. During the first month or so, I had been at school during the strikes, but one day, in late September, I was at a café on Rue Fbg Saint Antoine during the start of a protest. I saw a huge crowd of people make their way down the street, with banners, balloons, flags, megaphones, everything. I got incredibly excited upon seeing them, as I am somewhat of an activist myself—I try to participate in protests when they happen in New York, love studying past revolutions, am slightly radical, etc. All of lunch, I was trying to figure out what the protest was about—until I realized that this was les greves! I was antsy the whole lunch, wanting to join the protest, but was convinced that it would be finished by the time that I had paid l’addition. Surprisingly, it wasn’t over when I had paid, nor was it over three hours later, when I ran into it again in Republique— the demonstration lasted all day, and such protests had been happening once a week since I had arrived in Paris. It’s rare to see such a huge, unrestricted demonstration in New York, never mind one that happens once a week.
Fast forward to early October, when the strikes were getting bigger—high school kids began to join in—my friend who teaches in Boulogne Billancourt didn’t have to go to work because his students didn’t show up. My friend from Berlin was in town during one of the biggest day of strikes—and he, being a big activist and amateur photojournalist—decided to take part in the greves. The protesters apparently stormed the Bastille, cut off traffic and began graffiting the Colonne de Juillet
. It was the end of the day, so there were only about 150 people there—mostly anarchists and students—and the cops outnumbered the protesters. I met him there at the end of the confrontation, and there were under-covers (agent provoceurs) everywhere, and battalions of cops decked out in riot gear. We left and walked to the Marais for dinner. The next day, my friend went across town to Montparnasse and stumbled upon student protesters blocking Rue de Rennes. He didn’t get involved, but was following them around and photographing the scene. Despite keeping his distance, he got searched and cuffed, because the cops were convinced he was the leader (I think it may’ve been his combat boots, leather jacket, and Mohawk)—they let him go only upon discovering his passport that supported his claims that he was merely an American tourist in town visiting a friend.
What do these protests say about the Parisians? About the law enforcement here? I’m not positive, but I can conclude that they go the distance when it comes to defending a liberty they believe in. They spent months protesting and boycotting in order to save themselves two years of working. I’ve heard many criticisms about the protests—that it is silly to disrupt daily life; that it is silly to protest to lower the retirement age by a measly two years. Not to mention, many say, to be able to retire at 62 is still a way younger age than most countries. I often hate French stubbornness, but I believe that such a quality can be quite beneficial in situations like this. They think two more years of work at such an age is unfair, and they cannot be persuaded to believe otherwise. They are questioning the government and cannot easily be pacified, tranquillized. I honestly have a hard time criticizing any protests, any form of rebellion, when the reasoning behind such rebellion is even partially sensible. Often, I think the actual act of questioning can be more important that the cause, because government and authority seems to be questioned less and less nowadays, even though our society is becoming more and more insane. (I could go on justifying why I think our society has become exponentially insane in the past six or seven years, but I would never end this post.)
Sure, I agree, it seems a little whiny of them to be so outraged at having to work for two more years. Especially because the French are known for having such a lax work schedule in the first place—they take hour lunch breaks, go to work much later than Americans, and get out much earlier, then have a huge dinner and retire early (though this is a gross generalization, it is true of many work schedules here). On the other hand, the younger generation is getting worked harder (as is true in any country). My roommate is a jazz musician and works harder than many Americans I know— he’s often awake until 3am practicing piano, after having played all day. He takes Mandarin lessons because he will be doing a 40 show tour in China this spring (and already knows English and Spanish, at the age of 27), teaches piano lessons to several students, and just got signed to a label after years of effort. He has several shows every week (which are more than just jazz shows—many of them are huge performances, incorporating an orchestra, improv, etc), last week he did three four hour recording sessions day after day, and he also has several bands, a solo project and is constantly writing music. Anyway, I’ve gone off topic.
During the time that my friend from Berlin was in town, the high schoolers were being criticized for getting involved because the topic was almost irrelevant for them—they’re in high school, many argue—why should they care about retirement now? Well, if they don’t care now, at such an age, then when will they care? The French, I believe, have it right, when it comes to work and food and general enjoyment of life. Paris is a city, but it is not nearly as numbing as New York because Parisians put great value on living life simply. It is the very simple, small things that make life bearable for them, and they fear that changing one thing will disturb the balance. Adding on two years of work for them may seem insignificant, but it is symbolic—it’s one more step towards an American way of live where everyone is so overworked they can’t even sit down for seven minutes to drink a coffee. They’re essentially resisting a change that they believe will push them further towards a way of life that they disagree with. Their official “retraits” reasoning can be easily belittled and their actions can be distorted in the critical, public eye, but fortunately, they have enough perseverance and passion not to relent under such pressure. The French, truly, don’t “give a shit” about what other people think of their actions—and know that their motives are always slightly hidden and various, and therefore can’t be picked apart, simplified, and derided. I’ve learned that well enough since being here. Such an attitude can often be offensive and backward, but in this case, it’s necessary and productive.
The French are attempting to hold on to that spirit of revolution that was so prominent in the late sixties— and many of these protests are sure, on the surface, about the retirement age, but truly are more about a general dissatisfaction with the way things are in France, in the world. I think it’s a good thing I was taken so aback that day at lunch— that I was so confused as to what the protests were about. It was not obvious, when I was staring out the window, that the protests were about les retraits and “Sarko.” I saw the green party out there, hippies, working class people, college kids, communists, socialists, families, toddlers, old couples—it seemed like every French citizen was represented in this march on Rue Fbg Saint Antoine. It was a physical manifestation of general dissatisfaction with the way society is headed —at least that was my first impression. If I had been told beforehand that it was about les retraits, the protests would’ve immediately been colored by this surface meaning, and wouldn’t have seemed as profound. But all the possible motives that were racing through my mind during that day at lunch were not so far off—les greves were about retirement, sure, but most of the people in these weekly protests are out there for more than that. I restrained myself from jumping up mid-meal and joining because I didn’t know what the march was about, and of course, was afraid of offending them with my American-ness (illogical on my part perhaps, but that’s how I felt) and with my ignorance to the situation. But I believe if I had joined, I would’ve fit in just as well as the average adult Parisian who will concretely be affected by the legislation—because I feel the same outrage and dissatisfaction and passion when it comes to the state of our world.
See some of the most beautiful photos of the strikes here: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/10/france_on_strike.html
The video below is a video of the protests at the intersection I live at.