When the People Strike

Paris is burning. Lately, social media and the news have been full of pictures of burning garbage containers, rioting crowds, anti-macron banners, and a lot of police, all on the streets of Paris. Since the due date of this blogpost aligns perfectly with the current social movement in Paris and the rest of France, I will attempt to elaborate on this political, social, and cultural issue that has been dividing, uniting and mobilising millions of citizens in the past few weeks and even months. What issue is so pending and relevant that even famous intellectuals like Annie Ernaux form a group with other celebrities and intellectuals that protests this “inegalitarian” reform?

The government of French president, Emmanuel Macron, has decided to lift the official retirement age from 62 to 64 years. A considerable part of the population is firmly against this pension reform. There are several reasons for this. One is that many people are dissatisfied with the retirement system in France, and many pensioneers are already struggling financially. Many women will be at a disadvantage, since because of traditional gender roles, they paid less into the pension fund and with this reform, will receive even less, proportionately. A lot of people over 62 continue to work already today to improve their future pension. I also noticed that contrary to the often-heard Swiss ‘work ethics’, French people value their time off work and are more serious about it being threatened.

Therefore, while the issue was still being discussed in parliament, which was during January and February this year, there had been about two to three strikes per month. Last week, on Thursday, 16th of March, the government declared that it had definitely implemented the réforme des retraites without letting it pass through parliament, by using article 49.3, a kind of emergency clause. This sparked a wave of spontaneous protests the same evening. One week later, on the 23rd of March, the ninth national day of mobilization took place. On this day, some of the biggest demonstrations took place, also some of the more violent ones. While many people had been opposed to the reform as such, even more are against the use of article 49.3. In fact, more than 60% of the French population condemn this step of the president. There is a clear sense of betrayal among French people by the government’s undemocratic use of its power.

Rather than going even deeper into the intricate details of French politics and the long history of the lifting of the retirement age in France, I’d like to reflect on some observations that I made in my personal environment.

To begin with, French strike culture is something that I was not used to when I came here. The grèves are given great importance in daily life. They are normally organized by the biggest labour unions and officially recognized. By having such a wide reach on different domains in work- and daily life, they are quite powerful. If a national strike is announced, the daily life of most of the people in Paris will be affected by it. The biggest impact will be felt in the public transport system. Whole Metro stations near important buildings are closed, causing – literally – clogged metro stations, traffic jam and a lot of angry people. Bus lines aren’t served, and the frequency of metro trains is decreased, sometimes down to a fourth of the normal volume. One has to schedule at least twice the amount of time needed for their journey. Regarding the big number of Parisians that daily commute to work by metro, this causes total chaos along the busiest axes in the city.

By being this salient, I feel that strikes are taken much more seriously than they are in Switzerland. As a foreigner, there are degrees to which one is becoming familiar with and, especially, starting to understand the messages conveyed through strikes and the way people deal with it. I am in fact quite impressed by the way French people do democracy and their understanding of political issues. During these peak-weeks of the réforme des retraites, the

garbage collectors of Paris went on strike, too. During the two weeks that the garbage wasn’t collected, containers and bags kept on piling up on the sidewalks and on street corners. While there were quite some people that were, understandably, very bothered by it, I actually didn’t mind the situation. I find it astonishing how this makes visible how relevant these jobs actually are. The whole cityscape was changed and rendered much less attractive. I recommend googling: grève des éboueurs paris to get an impression. Now after two weeks, there are still arrondissements in which the strike continues, making for ever-growing garbage mountains. Having become a protest symbol, the heaps of uncollected garbage played into the hands of the protestors on the 23rd, who set them on fire in the following night.

I really like how the réforme des rétraites has become such a social topic, of students barricading their university buildings, artists producing songs in support and solidarity of the garbage collectors, of professors stressing the fact that they won’t do roll call on the day of a grève, and of whole domains of work and public service going on strike and therefore signalling to the government their miscontent and disapproval. All in the spirit of Familiarizing the Unfamiliar, I have moved to Paris in the middle of this historic protest movement and since then learned a lot about French political culture and the way the system of grèves and demonstrations work.

Siri Würzer

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