Who are these people?
Why's Gerard Depardieu sniffing the snail?
More important where's the famous Gallic shrug when you need it?
The barricades are up, acrid tear gas is filling the streets, angry hordes of striking workers and students are battling against a common enemy. Eh oui, the French are at it again. In the past, I have found the Gallic shrug the best response to the country’s trigger-happy strike culture – it’s just something you have to learn to live with. This time, though, I’m finding it difficult to shrug off – and I am not alone.
The government is in the final stages of pushing through a plan that will, if you believe the union hype, change the face of France as we know it and end the good life this country has come to symbolise – not just for its own citizens, but for the world at large. Or so they say. Which is why the country has taken to the streets.
You might be forgiven for not being entirely sure what year we are in. It could be 1789 - apart from the tear gas.
Or 1968? Or perhaps 1995, when France shut down completely for three weeks over a plan to reform disgracefully advantageous special pensions for a small group of workers. It could even be 2006, when students ran amok against a bill to make youth work contracts more flexible.
But, no, this is October 2010 and it is all about saying NON to retiring at 62 instead of 60 and receiving a full pension at 67 instead of 65. In rejection of this seemingly paltry change, protesters have brought the country to its knees. Yesterday, strikes halted all 12 of France’s oil refineries – the first time since May 1968. The pipeline bringing fuel to Paris’s two main airports and a large area of southern Paris was closed. Lorry drivers are in slow mode clogging France’s roads and rail workers are disrupting TGV trains whose promise of Très Grande Vitesse may come back to haunt them. Students have taken up the call to arms, blocking schools with garbage cans in lieu of the traditional paving slabs.
Up to now, things have been relatively peaceful - a policeman in Cannes was injured by a flying rock and doctors struggled to save an eye of a 16-year-old boy after he was struck by a rubber bullet. But today hundreds in Lyon took to the street and several cars were torched and burned. A school inspector in Seine Saint Denis, the Paris suburb where the nationwide riots of 2005 began, has sounded a note of caution. “Certain school blockages,” he warned earlier this week, risked “degenerating into the beginnings of urban riots”.
Sarkozy and his government feel the pressure as 3.5 million take to the streets, many of them simply because they can no longer stand their president. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an aggressive hard-Left figure, said that Mr Sarkozy was trying to “place himself in the shoes of a 21st century Thatcher”. In one sense, he is wrong. Compared to Margaret Thatcher and her battle with the miners, Mr Sarkozy’s reform is hardly radical. However, if the fuel blockages, student protests and demonstrations continue, he may need some of the Iron Lady tactics to stand firm.
But he'll be facing an incoming tide. As Le Monde pointed out yesterday, France is a very conservative country “hell-bent on keeping the status quo and acquired (social) rights, with history used as a windshield against reality”. Even the Iron Lady might have resorted to a Gallic shrug at the thought of trying to break the Frenchman’s bond with his placard.
Cara - Tuesday
who's hoping her flight will land in Paris not Budapest next week
PS that's Stan and me at Bouchercon having too much fun.
PPS loved seeing Susie who frequents our blog, Peter Rozovsky and Christopher Moore. A big thank you to Yrsa for a UK copy of her Ashes to Dust that I will inhale on my flight given my plane takes off :)