Spoiler: you don’t.
I’m guilty of assuming that simply because I am in the middle of the chaos of the so-called ‘unlimited’ strike in France, everyone else is automatically aware of the situation.
In the case that you are not, here’s a brief run down:
From the fifth of December there has been a national, unlimited strike called by different unions in protest of the planned pension reform by the government. The current age of retirement for many in the transport sector, for example, is fifty-five; the government want to do away with the differing tiers of retirement (there are forty-two tiers; see this article) and make their system universal: everyone retires at sixty-two.
I can’t even say that in theory I agree with the idea because once you begin to think about it, and talk to the French – inter-generational conversations – you begin to see not only how complex a reform it is to pull off but also start to question whether or not it is actually fair.
During the course of one day, in the middle of a recent conversation-turned-debate about pension reform, the person I was talking to argued simply that certain jobs are more dangerous and deserve to come with a lower retirement age. Think of police; think of fire-fighters.
A few hours after that conversation I was again involved in yet another, where someone else was arguing the fact that the French system is built on the idea of equality and that surely everyone, from teachers to administrators, could come up with a list of compelling reasons why the responsibilities of their job merit early retirement.
There is so much tangled up in my head regarding these strikes that to unravel it almost makes me feel like writing a series of posts rather than just a single one. Retirement is not an issue that had weighed on me before and now it is a constant: not just because it has made me think about the provisions I am making for my own future, but also in a much broader sense – questioning why we work until the age we do and what would happen if everyone retired earlier? It’s made me look at the systems that we belong often unthinkingly to: school, university, workplace, retirement, and wonder what would happen if these were so seriously disrupted.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the strikes although they have severely impacted day-to-day. Several people have suggested that this is because they are all new to me. The sheer volume of disruption and upheaval is unlike anything I have ever witnessed before, true, and I do find myself enthralled to an extent by it all. It isn’t the chaos but the fact that so many have been galvanised together that gets me. I don’t doubt that I am all the more susceptible to this sentimentality because I live in Paris: a city where there is a certain cold, distant, impersonal quality to a great many things.
But I take umbrage with the idea that it is just because I’ve never seen anything like this that I am accommodating of the situation. Everyone is capable of recognising the newness of an experience and of formulating a reaction to it that isn’t a simple byproduct of it being a novelty.
In my workplace, it feels as if every conversation to be had revolves around the strikes: if you agree or disagree with it; how it’s affecting you; the amount of hours you had to spend getting to our central Paris location that morning; how long it will take you to get back; if you, after all this, still like Paris.
I commute from the northern suburbs: a distance of approximately twelve kilometers, of which I walk one in order to get to the nearest train station. The journey to the center and to my workplace can be as quick as twenty-five minutes once I’m on the train but it is very often unpleasant on these ‘good’ days, with each carriage cramped and overcrowded, the result of my train line serving a percentage of the suburban population. The apathy with which I have come to expect an elbow too close to my face, to practically be buried into the scarf of the person in front of me or to have my body squashed between another person’s and a cold panel of the train’s interior surprises me. Yes, those are occurrences on the good days.
What has changed about the strike days is that I have to leave earlier and so my day is much, much longer. By the time I begin work, I have already been on the go for four, sometimes five hours. While I know that for many people this is their normal, my reason for pointing it out is only to say that if there was something to make me turn against the strikes it would be this. Show me someone who likes uncomfortable, time-costly commuting.
The way into Paris is not too different from the overcrowded normality of the average day. It is the way back that is unbelievable. ‘Unbelievable’ is the right word. Last week I walked the entire length of the platform in Gare de Nord and witnessed a volume of people in haphazard rows, agitated and pushing their way forward onto the train that had just arrived. Minutes after one train pulled out, this wave was replaced by another, and another, all the while with the frustration, the anxiety and the pressure building so perceptibly that it seemed to fill the parts of the station not already jammed with bodies.
On the platform people were forcibly closing the doors to carriages too packed to close automatically and still, while the beeping was signalling the imminent departure of the train, someone would rush up the platform and throw themselves against the crowd in desperation. None of it was happening in silence either: disembodied voices from the bellies of the carriages would cry out that there was no space or to please stop pushing.
My experience in Gare de Nord on one particular evening was such that I couldn’t face getting on any train. I left and walked to a nearby cafe where I stayed until my boyfriend could come to collect me in the car, which brings me to the other unbelievable aspect of these strikes: the traffic.
I’ve written previously about the périphérique in Paris. I’ve wasted hours of my life sitting in traffic on this ring road, the car at a complete standstill, moored and claustrophobic and waiting endlessly in a tunnel with no light at the end of it, some truck or other inevitably blocking whatever light might have been visible otherwise. Every car possible seems to be out in force on the roads during these strike days almost as if cars themselves are protesting en masse about their diminishing role in a society that understands their toxic toll on the climate.
You can find battles in and between everything in Paris these days.
It is impossible to get away from the strikes: surviving them requires the taking of a deep breath and recognising that you are going to be involved. For how long they will continue remains to be seen – some are predicting as long as until the end of January – as does the question that has come my way more than once these days: after all this, do you still like Paris?