This month Paris claims its literary persona: la rentrée is also la rentrée littéraire and all French publishers release a spate of new books. There will be 701 titles published (85 first novels) with particular hype around the new Michel Houellebecq a famous enfant terrible and Amélie Nothomb, who sports photos of herself on all her book covers. In celebration of the literary flurry Paris hosts the Salon des Livres where these 701 authors will discuss their work and be interviewed all over the radio and on TV...authors are like rock stars, their faces and books on magazine covers, huge sections in the newspapers devoted to reviews.
But that doesn’t make them, or the man next to them at the corner cafe, exempt from the realities of French life, it’s the season of la grève first and la négociation after a while. The French strike first and talk it over later.
More than two million people today are staging walk outs, demonstrations and striking in France. Workers who don't have their particular issue will stage sympathy strikes so in the end everyone usually joins in. Unions call it a big national day of strike action against pension reforms which affect schools, transport and other public services.
The teachers walkout started Monday, a day early at many schools, where teachers are also protesting against job cuts. Today’s strike also affects courts, Pôle Emploi job centres, post offices and energy supplier EDF. There's protests outside hospitals, and the paramedics will maintain a minimum level of service for 24 hours. Air France will keep 90 % of flights at CDG and 50% out of Orly since the air traffic controllers are joining the strike. Only minimal service on the Paris Metro and slowdowns on trains throughout the country.
So it's not a good day to die in Paris or mail a letter or take the train, bake that cake using all that electricity, or go to court for that traffic ticket or think your child will be at school. I’m thinking of parents whose children were back in school; twelve million students finally returned to class last week after a long summer — or so their parents thought. But the unions representing France's 850,000 teachers have walked out and schools are closed. So why would you want to live in France? A nuisance, a pain if want to get something done right? But the French don't think that way. According to polls 70% support the strike!
Dealing with strikes means acquiring an acceptance that you can’t change the way things are done. People learn to go with the flow or try to without going into cardiac arrest.
Teachers' unions are protesting against the government's pension reforms and the job cuts. Approximately 16,000 jobs have been axed for this academic year. 30,000 posts were cut between 2007 and 2009. There’s serious talk of 16,000 additional cuts next September and teachers and other members of the staff aren’t happy. Nor are the parents who want their offspring to go to school and actually have the opportunity to learn.
No one is happy. This year’s reforms mean that large parts of curricula at all levels have been rewritten, and several textbooks aren’t ready for distribution. There’s talk of extending the school week so children will be less exhausted and many other changes. Change is generally unpopular.
Also today there's a general strike planned by people who don’t want to see the retirement age raised from 60 to 62—which may give the teachers a hard time deciding which strike to join today. All of the other unions are joining, and if you want to get from here to there, forget it. Whether or not President Sarkozy will be successful in getting this reform passed is more than problematic. There’s been a lot of yelling and screaming even though the French trade unions’ protests failed to rally enough street power against the proposed crucial reforms regarding France’s costly pension system. Anyone who reads the economic news is aware that an economic crisis is spreading across Europe and needs to be contained. Being required to work two or three extra years, he says, will ease the problem.
But strikes and turmoil do mean something in France and affect the government outcome. People strike and something gets done. Politics is a sport and a science of its own here. A lot of people’s futures are on the line (including President Sarkozy’s), and French society’s future is resting on which reforms are adopted and which aren’t.
I once asked a French women next to me on the Metro what was going on when the train slowed down, then stopped in the middle of a tunnel. But no one looked up from the books and newspapers they read. Is there a problem with the train? It's la greve...the strike But it's museums that are striking (at least that week) Eh she shrugged. They strike in sympathy, support. But how... I sputtered will making everyone late for work, doctor's appointments help museum workers? C'est la principe..it's the principal of the action. It was hot in the jammed train car of commuters, people stood, children held their parent's hands yet no one grumbled. Twenty minutes later when the train jumped back to life she grinned at me, see we'll get there. We did. When I got to my meeting late, no one minded, la greve and we ended up in a cafe since the others couldn't make it due to the trains and had a great time. What do Parisians do? How do they manage? My friend Anne-Francoise, who has two small children and takes the train, stays home, they ride bikes, pick up items at the charcuterie, go to the park and oh, read one of those 701 books.