As those of you who pay attention to such things already know, an ongoing strike here in France has made global news. A few worldly folks have asked me what gives. Now, if you’re at all familiar with French politics, you know that a strike here is hardly newsworthy. Especially compared to the U.S., these people will strike over anything. This one’s a big deal, though. Because it’s BIG.
The issue? President Sarkozy has proposed raising the national retirement age a whopping two years, from 60 to 62.
Full disclosure: I’ve barely cracked a newspaper since I got here and I don’t spend time on French news websites. I have a language lesson every time I leave my room (and even sometimes when I don’t), so following the news in my second language just seems like an awful lot of effort. My point being, I’m sure I don’t understand the complexities of the dispute–but guess what–I don’t have to read the news to see what’s going on around me!
There have been at least two big demonstrations in Angers. I missed the first one because I was on my way to work (ironic, I know), but the second I watched and photographed.
Why didn’t I join in? Well, c’est compliqué.
Firstly, having lived in St. Paul during the 2008 Republican National Convention, I’m accustomed to a merely supposedly free nation in which a citizen’s Constitutionally-enshrined right to assemble peacefully is often interrupted by cops in riot gear. Since I’m a foreigner, it seemed unwise to get involved.
Much to my delight, however, I realized that this isn’t an issue in France. Here, you can stage a demonstration, even a big one—you can set even set stuff on fire—and all the (unarmed, I might add) police officers do is direct traffic!
That fact alone made me want to join in, but well…gosh…I can’t believe how conservative this sounds—coming from me, of all people!—but when there are so many troubling issues to feel passionate about, I’m simply not as sympathetic to this strike as I would be to just about any strike in the U.S. I come from a place where you’re generally expected to devote at least 40 hours per week, at least 50 weeks per year to capitalism until you’re at least 65, and you can count yourself lucky if you get healthcare in return. Healthcare and paid vacations are birthright in France, so it’s hard for me to relate to how enraged the French feel at the thought of having to work two more years before receiving their pension.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m on the workers’ side, on principle. Moreover, the fact that the French are staging huge demonstrations all over the nation is Thing #23439 that I love about these people. It really speaks to the differences between French and American values. In the U.S., admirable labor organizers fight the good fight every day, and the rewards are few and far between. In France, even the unarmed cops love a good protest, because how dare the President tell them they have to keep policing for two more years! They just want to hang out in the cafés, drinking wine and coffee and exhaling this beautiful language from pursed, French-kissy lips between drags on their intense cigarettes.
Here’s what I saw.