Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Protests in France

1. Certainly no one has missed news of the current strikes and protests in France over pension reform.  Make no mistake about it -- the massive protests are real.  In a few locations, cars have been overturned.  One lycée torched, and burned to the ground.  All this makes for tremendous and powerful headline news.

And yet.  Life goes on.  It is a major upheaval, and travelers' plans cannot be 100% certain. The disruption of daily life certainly can't be underestimated. But it is unclear to me whether any of the limited violent activity at the schools originates with the students or with others who are simply hell-bent on joining in any protests:  les casseurs.

One thing is for sure.  Business people -- heck, everyday people -- are being inconvenienced. But, honestly, police barricades are a norm of Paris life, for whatever reason.  So, c'mon, folks:  this ain't French Armageddon. 

In Paris, the RATP forecasts normal service.  The SNCF and the airports have traffic reduced by about 25%. There are potential gasoline shortages, etc.  Annoyance, yes.  Inconvenience,  yes.  Life goes on anyway,  yes.

2.  Concerned about some alarming news reports yesterday, I called my daughter, who is working as a language assistant in a lycée in Provence.  "How's it going?" I asked, unnerved.  No big news -- she mostly detailed her efforts to get internet service at her shared apartment inside the lycée. Bureaucracy and telecommunications woes. The regular.  "But -- how about the protests?" I pressed.

"Yeah, there were some blockades last week -- they blocked the entrance to the school with dumpsters.  And it's been weird, with I-don't-know-who setting off Molotov cocktails sometimes. Bizarre. Oh gawd, there's one exploding now.  Well, Mom, I gotta run -- have to make a presentation for my class."

To me, this says it all.  Protests are happening. Noise is happening. Noise. Sure, things aren't as smooth as might be hoped, but life goes on. Work goes on.  Classes to attend.  Dinners to prepare.  Vernissages, movies, activities to enjoy.  Everyone makes do.  But that angle doesn't make headline news, does it?

3.  This all reminded me of my arrival in Paris in 2006.  There were protests then, too.  This blog was only a twinkle in my eye at the time, but here is the missive I wrote about those supposed "riots" which led me to create this here blog:

April 1, 2006-- Last night I was dining at the Cafe de la Paix (how ironic), when suddenly  dozens of police squads showed up, flashing blue lights, guys with helmets and plastic shields.  No, they weren't there to take me away(!), but instead to barricade the boulevard des Capucines so that the soon-to-be arriving protesters could march down the street.  It was about 10:30 or 11 pm, so fortunately we were through dining.  Because of the manif (protest), my dinner companion was not able to take a cab back to Ile St.  Louis, and so -- horrors!-- had to take the metro.

The gendarmes wouldn't let me enter the street there at place de l'Opera (silly -- so I just walked around the corner and got in that way).  And then I strolled home happily down the center of a very quiet boulevard with no traffic.)

Then I got back to my cozy pied a terre and kicked off my high heels.  About five minutes later I heard the approaching crowds chanting and shouting.  Peering out my kitchen window, I saw the throngs marching down boulevard de la Madeleine, filling a whole city block or two (or more?) streaming past my front door at place de la Madeleine.  The feeling was one of momentum and energy and not at all of anger or fear. They were waving banners and shouting as they headed around the corner to the Elysee Palace.  I would have gone down to the street to watch, but actually had a better view from my lofty perch. Mostly I didn't budge from the fear that, if I left my 7th floor apartment, by the time I got to street level the action might have all passed me by.  It felt like being part of a Victor Hugo script.  Huge adrenaline rush!

(Anway, the most angry mob of Parisians I've seen all week was the thousands of cars backed up at place de la Madeleine at rush hour on Wednesday... because the cops blocked the roads for -- ta-dah! -- Condoleeza Rice to get to the Elysee Palace for her nanosecond visit with Chirac.  You've never heard such klaxons, such muttering later in the supermarches ("Yeah, I hear she even traveled from the airport in an American car..." "I bet it was 'super-blindee' [armored vehicle] -- she'll need it after making everyone so pissed...")
I bet somehow the American press didn't pick up on THAT little Parisian police barricade!)
I remember distinctly at the time receiving worried emails from family and friends asking if I was all right, if I was safe. The media was reporting calamitous activity!   I couldn't afford to actually laugh at their worries, but tried nevertheless to reassure them that life in France did not equal what they saw or read in the news.

4. Not currently in France, I don't have eyewitness observations about the reform protests and their ramifications.  But I do check my Facebook page, check status of my friends in France, skype with them. Most are at max griping about transportation, either slow-downs in public transport, lines at the gas station, or worries about being able to leave on vacation as scheduled.  Hmmm, not exactly what I would call The End of Life as We Know It.    

School vacations for la Toussaint in France begin this Friday.  I'm waiting to see how that affects the protest activity.


Alison said...

For purely selfish reasons, I'm hoping that things calm down and everyone just lays off during les vacances de la Toussaint...because I am going to visit my kids.

They live en province and are therefore not as affected as Ile-de-France. My daughter told me to chill out, but I don't think she realized what was going on in Paris.

That said, I totally understand your concern for your daughter, although she seems to be taking things with a grain of salt...comme une française, quoi.

JChevais said...

Ha! I started my blog in November 2005 coz of THOSE riots. Oh the memories...

What I find HILARIOUS is that the high school kids who are SO WORRIED about their retirements and the job market overflowing with geezers, are not protesting today (a Wednesday!). Natch, right? Journée des enfants and all.

Blurdy hypocrites.

Canedolia said...

It's not the end of the world as we know it. As you say, it's daily life in France, and that's what makes it bad. The strikers go on and on and on, wasting people's time, wasting government resources, wasting taxpayers' money and blocking changes which, if they are not made now, will cause much more suffering when they have to be made in the future. But we have to protect our quality of life, right?

JChevais - so true!

Sarah said...

Hi Polly, I've been meaning to visit your blog for some time now and kept forgetting! d'oh. Anyway, I've made it and I'll add you on Google Reader so I don't forget again lol

The strikes down here in Montpellier mean that there is little petrol about, and none in the arrière pays. It's actually quite a serious problem because no petrol means people can't get to work. Living in the country is lovely but you are so dependent on a car.

Gerry Snape said...

All of this reminds me of the "troubles" in Ulster when they were at their height and I would phone mum and dad and they would say, "och it's not that bad, sure we'll all get on no doubt!" People's the amazing thing about people!

Going Like Sixty said...

I admire the French for getting so worked up! It takes a blow-hard on television and a comedy team on television to get U.S. citizens worked up.

We arrived in Paris the day the U.S. started bombing Iraq prior to the invasion. We found ourselves in the middle of a huge throng of chanting students. We even walked with them for a block. Never felt threatened or got a dirty look. When a bus stop got smashed, Nancy decided our adventure should end and we headed to the nearest curb to watch them pass.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thanks for all your feedback.

Sarah, I agree that the biggest challenge is people not being able to get to work -- to be productive! -- because of the gasoline shortages. I hope employers are understanding and allowing for some telecommuting. Haven't heard much about that angle.

All in all, I look forward to seeing how much this continues once the republique is en vacances. That will say a lot.

(It hasn't affected airfare prices from US to France: DANG! That was my subtle hope. Selfish moi.)

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

My parents just arrived from the States yesterday and had no problems at all with their flight or getting into Paris from CDG. I'm at home on pre-maternity leave so I'm not affected so much. But even if I were still going to work, with the Métro, the RER A and my son's school all operating normally, my life wouldn't be disrupted much at all.

However, my husband had to go to 7 gas stations before finding diesel the other day, and his TGV to Nantes yesterday lost 1.5 hours being routed through Rennes to avoid a stretch of track blocked by a rogue union. The irony is that the SNCF (national rail), La Poste, the RATP (Paris public transit) and the schools are all more or less working as always. It's mostly just hard-line leftists and delirious high school students out having fun.

I think the high school students don't care much about retirement, but see street protesting as some sort of rite of passage.

Ken Devine said...

Your'e goes on, but only if they let it. I've a flight booked for a couple of weeks time and I really must be there to finish work off. I'm hoping there's enough fuel around so that I can be picked up. Selfish eh?

Pascale Paris VF said...

Really, I don't understand why international TV reports are so bad about France! Yes there are strikes in some professional areas, but life goes on and every one who wants to work can do it !

Anonymous said...

I'm always amazed that foreign media basically predict a French revolution and so on. Yeah, they wish... Strikes are normal in France! Sure, some are a bit more... er... colorful than other (burning cars is not okay I guess) but it's business as usual.

Margaret said...

Alexandra, my friend (pen-pal/co-blogger) described the same difficulties as Parisienne's husband - driving around looking for gas, and not being able to fill up the tank because the few stations that had gas were rationing it. It's harder for those who live in the countryside and who depend on their cars for transportation. And then she went to Paris this weekend and the trip took an extra hour because the Nantes-Paris train was delayed due to blockages. It's definitely an inconvenience. End of the world, no, but pain in the ass, yes!

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