Protests in France

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

-John Hugh (solo post)

The city of lights is quiet.  Strikers have virtually shut it down.  Few commuter trains are running; people are struggling to get into the city from the suburbs; the Metro is almost out of commission.  And this is month two.  It’s difficult to imagine.  It is life in France.  What began as a transportation strike now includes teachers, lawyers, and hospital workers joining the fray.

I’ve lived through a French strike.  It was 1995, and I was a student in Chambery.  I had to hitchhike to Geneva to catch a flight home for Christmas.  The current strike has lasted longer.  Train transportation is at the heart of French life, in a way it is in few other countries.

Why strike, then and now?  In 1995 and today, it was around pension reform.  The French count on their generous pensions.  Emmanuel Macron wants to cut them.  The people want their pensions.  They are mad.  In France, they strike.

There is a belief in the very process of striking.  The masses can, not only, impact, but produce policy.  Beyond all the policies, however, is culture.  This is the French way.  Liberty, equality, and fraternity.  As one French union head stated,  “It’s very difficult for us to find common ground with this government. On their side it’s about, ‘You make out for yourself.’ With us, it’s all about solidarity: liberty, equality, fraternity.”   It was that way in the French Revolution, 231 years ago.  They believe it can still happen today.  Will it?  We will see.

Who stands to gain and lose in the pensions overhaul demanded by President Emmanuel Macron is debated every day. Nobody agrees on the details.  But France is a society of ranks.  There is a perception that the arrogance of the strong breeds resentment in the powerless.  That is a familiar theme even outside France.  Yet in France, people dream that everybody gets to attain the same noble status.   Teachers, nurses, soldiers, railway workers, and police officers benefit from France’s pension system, one of the most protective in the world.

Intimidation by the masses is not only French history, but the French hold it as their tradition, their way of life.  Someone told me in 1995, these things have to happen every 20 years or so, it’s normal.  It’s the French way.   To observe these protests is to observe the pressing question of every generation:  how do we equitably share our resources for everyone to attain a decent chance at life?  The French take to the streets to make their voices heard – always as the masses.


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