Thursday, May 27, 2010

Strike!

With the RER on strike (yet again) today, I opted to walk home from Denfert Rochereau. I started hearing Michael Jackson about half way along Rue Daguerre. I decided to investigate, and this is what I found:
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Not far away, I ran into an awkward white dance party, rocking out to tracks from Grease:
(that's for you, Laura)
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Block party? Festival? No, of course not. It's a strike!

Confused? So was I. It took a group of excited, costumed French workers and a few sheets of propaganda to explain it to me. Apparently the strikes are nationwide, against a new proposed law that would push the age of retirement back from where it is currently set at 60 years old. Their posters made me laugh: "6o isn't early enough, 40 years of working is already too much!"--not because I disagree with the idea, necessarily, but because starting work at 20 is pretty old by American standards, not to mention totally unrepresentative of French youth, who seem to linger around the house and mooch off their parents until their mid 20's.

Sticker of plebeian rage were everywhere:
As were banners and huge helium balloons strapped to cars:


There were a range of different career fields represented at the strike, from street cleaners, to industrial chemical workers, to nurses. This nurse was wearing a lab coat and a jester hat with syringes dangling from its points: Grève-ing starts young. Here, we see that even the students are invested in the age of retirement:
The magic words, it seemed, were "salariés respectés" (respected workers). For the French, retirement seems to be not so much a matter of resources (or lack thereof) so much as it is an issue of respect--or at least that's the way it is being framed in the reactionary rhetoric.
The parade started to move, and I moved with it, cheering and drinking in the excited atmosphere:
Many of the vans were equipped with loudspeakers and blasted music, motivational, anti-Sarkozy speeches or, most commonly, simple chants: (in this one, she's leading the paraders in a cry of "tous ensemble, tous ensemble--Grève! Grève!" or "all together, all together--Strike! Strike!" which is catchy, I suppose, if rather uninspired)

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The MJ performance wasn't the only aspect of the strike that felt bizarrely party-like, as the drink menu on the ubiquitous food vans showed:
Ah. The abandoned, lime-filled cups and jolly strikers suddenly made sense.

This particular food van made me smile, because it seemed like the majority of its protest signage was general, revolutionary stuff (note the Che Guevera flag), which I assume means that it has been adapted for frequent use at this type of event. And you know what? That's probably a smart business move, because even if the economy plummets, France will still continue to strike (probably moreso) and those strikers will still want their 2 euro beers and baguette sandwiches. Even the French term "en grève" (on a strike) sounds to me like a habitual action, almost happy: "on vacation", or even comical: "gone fishing".
But maybe that's just because I've grown accustomed to hearing it with a casual attitude and a frequency that I never hear associated with its English equivalent. The French are often mocked for their eagerness to strike, but the American taboo on strikes reflects a cold, capitalist approach that values efficiency over workers' rights, and leaves the overworked and mistreated with little recourse. Striking in France makes these workers more visible, and as a result, more respected and more accommodated.

And even if the strike doesn't accomplish anything--if Sarko insists on dragging his 35-hr work week, early retiring country kicking and screaming into the modern world--well, at least the French got a good party out of it.

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