At the time of writing we are now more than a month into a national strike–the Métro announcements refer to it as a mouvement social–in France that started on December 5. The strikers are a hodgepodge of different groups of workers including teachers, employees of France’s national energy company, the national railway company, the Paris Métro, and other fonctionnaires (civil servants). They are protesting against a government retirement reform, which includes a progressive end to so-called “special regimes,” that seeks to align all state pension funds under the same program.
Incredibly, the massive strike actually began almost a week before the government had even announced the details of its new plan. Just the fact that they would be seeking a reorganization of the retirement system was enough to kick-off the movement.
The French people’s love for striking and demonstrating is legendary. Before we moved to Paris our friends and families warned us about two things: it would be bitterly cold in our apartment during the winter, and we would most certainly suffer through some kind of transportation strike. Both predictions have now come true.
As it happened G. and I had a weekend in London planned in early December; we were meant to head out on the Eurostar on December 6. We watched, somewhat powerless, as all the trains were cancelled one after the other. In the end G. managed to rebook us on an earlier train on Wednesday the 4th–we were on the last Eurostar to London before the beginning of the strike. We were also lucky to make it back on Monday morning on one of the trains that wasn’t cancelled.
Since then it’s taken a lot of improvising, and sometimes pure grit, to get to and from wherever you need to go in Paris, with some trial and error. To get to work for most of December I had to walk from our apartment near Place de la République all the way to Bastille in order to grab Line 1–one of the two “automatic” lines that have stayed open with some consistency since the beginning of the grève. I’ve been among the lucky ones. G., whose office is in the 7th arrondissement, spent most of December working for home. When she did have to go in to the office, it took her over an hour on foot. And of course taxis and Ubers are nearly out of the question, the wait times and prices (for Ubers, anyway) being inflated due to high demand. Some of the bus lines run, but they’re often so full that it’s hard to get on. As for the Velib’ (Paris’ public bicycle sharing system), friends have reported that the docks near their flats are usually empty.
What surprised me the most as the grève unfurled is that the French, for whom complaining is usually a national sport, seem to have taken it all in stride. Of course there’s some huffing after a particularly bad commute, but most of the time they just seem to get on with their day without too much of a fuss. We often remark upon the stoic resilience of the English (“stay calm and carry on”), but in this case the resilience of Parisians in front of truly appalling transportation situation has been admirable.
It was a different story the other day when I attended my English language book club, where all the participants are expats. The first topic of discussion before we began talking about the book was the grève: how hard it was to get anywhere, how tired everyone was of walking, how no one back home understood how dependent we were on public transportation. We all whined more than the French people I know!
A few weeks before Christmas, the holiday plans for several of my coworkers seemed to be in jeopardy since many trains to the provinces were cancelled. But then, as if by miracle, at the last minute everyone was able to rebook their tickets. Over the holidays the Métro closures loosened a bit, and now in January most lines are open during commuting hours in the mornings and evenings, although major stations remain closed “for security reasons.” The grève goes on, but it seems perfectly engineered–fine tuned, even–to annoy without bringing the city (and country) to a complete halt.
This social movement has now officially become the country’s longest strike in 30 years and the longest in the history of the SNCF, France’s national railway company. The government has begun to concede on a few points, but there’s still no end in sight. In the meantime, checking Citymapper is essential every time I leave the house.