Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On Strike

When you live in a country you didn’t grow up in, there are certain things you never really understand. At first you ask people around you, but the language barrier makes it difficult to formulate your question in a way that goes to the core of your misunderstanding. Even if it does, you often don’t understand the answer. If there are several people present, you might think you’ll have the benefit of comparing and contrasting several points of view, but instead, your question will spark a full-blown political discussion amongst the natives, while you hang on for dear life. These problems go away with time, but in the meantime, you’ve grown accustomed to the idea of not understanding, of not fathoming the unfathomable, until something rises to the surface again.

So it is with strikes in France. The first question the foreigner wants to ask is “Why are they striking?” Indeed the most striking thing about the strikes is that no one really seems to know why people are striking. Or rather, everyone does (see above: full-blown political discussion).

Last Thursday was a day of strikes throughout the country. Teachers and high school students, who have been active protesters over the past few weeks (more on them later) were joined by civil service workers, and even employees of private companies. This was not unprecedented, it’s just the first time it’s happened on my blog watch.

At the international school our kids attend, some classes were cancelled and others were not. So my wife had to go pick one of our boys up at midday. On their way back they were stuck behind a massive demonstration and had to abandon the car several blocks from home and continue on foot. Fifteen minutes later, as they neared home, demonstrators were still filing down the avenue where they left the car. This is unusual in Lyon. Even so, many people take it all in stride, because they sympathize with the strikers.

Last Thursday’s massive demonstrations were held to protest “the government’s social welfare policy”. This refers to general dissatisfaction with salaries, unemployment, purchasing power, etc. But what does an employee in a private company hope to accomplish by striking, the American observer might be tempted to ask.

Looking a little bit further, you realize that minimum wage laws are set by the government. So are rules governing corporate profit-sharing plans, or company obligations regarding lay-offs or redundancy plans. Furthermore, there’s always some election coming up in the not-too-distant future (municipal, regional, parliamentary, presidential, European parliament, referendum on the European constitution, etc.), so when a demonstration gets a lot of support, the government starts worrying. The government has already said it wants to explore these topics with the MEDEF, the employers’ representative body, but according to the MEDEF’s president, it’s having nothing of it. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is also proposing a little increase in civil service salaries. The government’s particularly afraid now that any dissatisfaction with its policies will translate into a “no” vote on the European constitution next month.

But wait. High school students on strike? This is legal? Are these spur-of-the-moment demonstrations organized by SMS? Rest assured, I don’t quite get it either, but from what I’ve heard, it isn’t as well organized as all that. A teacher-friend of mine said high school student demonstrations are much like toothpaste tubes. You press, but you never know how much is going to come out.

The high school students were protesting the loi Fillon, named after the education minister, which is supposed to reform (or revolutionize, depending on who you talk to) the middle school and high school experience nationwide. It appears a lot of course requirements and options will be changed, and staffing cut, but it’s hard to know just how much, in the end, will really change. My wife says she’s been hearing about reforms since she entered first grade.



At 9:50 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

I read an interesting article about the strike that made sense theoretically, which means that I have no idea whether it was anything like the truth but it wass at least rational. The writer pointed out that since the revolution, French regime change occured quite often (compared to the US experience anyway) as a result of internal civil unrest, and that it had powerful symbolic overtones in a way that would be incomprehensible here. The author further proposed that the French political system was far more closed than that of the US, i.e. no French equivalent of a Texas exterminator (DeLay), Illinois lifeguard (Reagan), Georgia peanut farmer (Carter), etc., were likely to get anywhere near the structures of political power, and that furthermore, because of the inbred nature of the French political elite and tradition of strong centralized power, were likely to feel politically weak. Hence the need for constant strikes, instead of say, writing your congressman or joining a PAC, since this was the only way to demonstrate the people's (whoever they are) strength. What do you think?

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked this piece a lot. Vive la grève! I always found this to be a strange and alternatively maddening and wonderful phenomenon during my years in Paris. I thought it was fantastic that people actually had the guts to do that, even if most of the time, it was largely symbolic, and life went back to normal the next day. I was living in Paris during a very real RATP strike in 1987, but that was a disaster. However, I did enjoy the demonstrations at Denfert-Rochereau every spring (since the RAR Blue line was shut down, and had to walk through there any way from school to the Cité Universitaire.

I think at the heart of most Americans is a weak-kneed conformist afraid of acting out against authority, even symbolically. Thank goodness it hasn’t always been this way (from the roots of the American Revolution, to the Abolitionist movement, to the labor movement, to the anti-war movement in the 60s/70s), but there definitely has been a strong streak of that, no moreso than lately.

Jeff Z makes some pretty good points too. What he's referring to is l'ENArchie. In France, you don't get elected to higher office if you didn't attend l'Ecole Nationale d'Administration. From Giscard d'Estaing, to Mitterand, to Chirac, and even Raymond Barr (I think), all these guys went there. Having attended Sciences Po myself, a feeder school to l'ENA, I have seen first hand the kind of people that are on the inside track.

That said, France's officials, all of them, are directly elected, and they have a true multi-party system, not the outdated Electoral College and the two-sides-of-the-same-coin party systme the US has. Not that French system is any less corrupt than the US's at the highest level, but these two facts contribute mightily to the psychology of people in France that they believe that they at least have a stake in the game.


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