Thursday, October 21, 2010

Les grèves

After a series of well crafted and entertaining stories, I am going to take it down to the scholar level and do some information sharing that the news feeds across the world would find quite interesting. I am going to talk about "les grèves", the massive strikes, which are currently sweeping across France.

If you haven't heard, the French government is attempting to reform the retirement and pension ages. The proposed changes include raising the age for retirement from 60 to 62, as well as moving the age for full state pension benefits from 65 to 67. Those of us who live in the US know very well that 62 is still a full three (soon to become 4) years younger than the retirement age at home. Other countries that have age 65 or higher as the year you can qualify for retirement include Germany, Great Britain, Norway and both countries of the Iberian Peninsula. I could go on, but these countries illustrate well enough that in the world's leading economies, the retirement age is much higher than that of France. Even by raising it, the age would still be considered low. Yet the strikes go on.

"Les grèves" and "les manifestations" have been a common theme in French history. Simply searching "French striking" with Google gave me page after page on instances where the French went on strike over...something. They've taken CEO's hostage, overtaken and burned trucks carrying produce and blockaded ports, airports, roads and buildings. Striking and protesting is in their blood, law and history, thus, right now, they're out in full force attempting to back the government down from reform. Obviously they strike because it has worked before. In 1995 they forced the government to back down from the same type of pension reformed getting voted on right now. The current situation might turn out differently with Sarkozy as president, but we'll see soon. The vote was scheduled for yesterday. The results of the vote should come out soon. But until then, all I can do is share with the world what I see and hear, how these strikes have affected me, and how they might affect me soon. So here goes.

First of all, the turnout on these strikes is incredible. The police say that there are over a million people out in the streets for each of these days of called strikes (the union estimate is always roughly twice to three times the police estimate). Regardless of that number demonstrating, the number striking is astounding not only because of how many, but how varied they are. Busses don't run like they should, both city and intercity. Last weekend I tried to go to a city only 70 km away and couldn't get there because the busses weren't running there due to strikes. Trains are running irregularly because the workers don't show up. At one point one in three trains was NOT running, with one in two TGV (bullet) trains either late or not running. That is astounding. France depends heavily on trains and busses for transportation. Between Aix en Provence and Marseille, which has a large commuting population, a 30 km drive turned into a nightmare. It took two hours to make the drive on a strike day instead of the average 30 minutes.

Gas stations have run dry across France, affecting cars and planes both. My program director drove by five stations in Marseille that said they were dry before she came across one with any gas. One in three planes was affected, either late or cancelled, due to fuel shortages. Sarkozy had to order the forced opening of the oil refineries in France in order to keep things running at at least this capacity. Inhabitants of Marseille also took it upon themselves to block all the entrances and exits from Marseille to the freeways, thus stopping the majority of traffic in and out of the city. The most disgusting thing I've seen was the piles of garbage rotting on the streets of Marseille. The trash workers aren't picking them up and the heaps simply sit there and accumulate until they spill over into the streets or cover the sidewalks. It's more than slightly revolting.

Schools, too, are being affected. Mine has not, but the students of the university in which I am a part of went on strike several times. Today I'm pretty sure I saw a group of about 150 of my Université Paul-Cezanne compatriots walking and chanting up and down the main street of Aix. A friend of mine teaches English to French lycéens, or high schoolers, and was stopped in his attempt to leave school one day by a line of shopping carts and angry students blocking the doors. His entrance to school was also blocked one day by tons of dumpsters and trash cans set up by the students. Students somewhere even lit a car on fire. The youngsters are getting riled up too. They want in on this, but I feel like they just want to join in and not go to school just because they can avoid working for a bit. I have a hard time believing that they're actually angry enough about this to blockade their own school. They just want time off. But that's just me.

So those are my observations and experiences from the strikes. I don't think they're going to work this time. Sarkozy is pretty bullheaded about this, and it needs to happen. Had it happened in 1995, the government would have already realized billions of euros in savings from not having to open up the coffers so early. Instead, they have to face round two of angry French people striking and protesting their actions. I think the government needs to do this, regardless of whether the people are angry or not. It just needs to happen. Talking to my first homestay host, she said that the reforms would fundamentally alter the French way of life. She also added that people's bodies just can't take working hard that long. "It'll kill us all!" she said. I can see why she'd say that. But I don't really believe her. I told tell her that smoking a pack a day like the French do will kill you even faster. Maybe we should up the age on smoking? She said that the French would pull another 1789 style attack on the government if that happened. That I do believe.

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