Thursday, October 18, 2007

La grève

Today is my first serious transit strike à la française. The kind of strike that paralyzes the country, that can bring out the French equivalent of the national guard, that can bring down a presidency. Seven Métro lines are shut down completely, eight more are running with extremely restricted service, and only the fully automatic Line 14 is operating normally. Regional trains are stopped as is Paris' commuter rail, and even the high-speed TGV is seriously affected. If you want to know whether or not you can make it to your destination, good luck finding out on the web: both the website of the RATP, the Parisian transit authority, and the website of the SNCF, the national rail service, are overwhelmed with traffic.

This time around, I'm more fascinated than upset. Since I'm still on maternity leave, I can enjoy the drama without any stress, as I have nowhere to go but for my usual short walks around the neighborhood. Since my suburb has as many offices as apartments and most office workers took the day off, it is strangely calm today, not unlike a typical day in the middle of August. Luckily, my husband's office was transferred to our neighborhood over the summer, so he is now only a five minute walk away and had no trouble going to work this morning.

This strike may decide Sarkozy's fate, as it is the direct result of public sector reforms that he is trying to push through early in his presidency. Rail and transit workers have special retirement benefits that in some cases have existed since the days of coal-burning locomotives, benefits which allow them to retire years before the average French worker. They're striking to maintain these privileges, and for what I think is one of the first times in French history, they're striking without the sympathy of the majority of the French people.

Ironically, the 35-hour work week which was created by the left has taken the teeth out of periodic transit strikes. Instead of working a simple 35-hour week, most salaried employees receive extra days off, called RTT days, as compensation for working normally up to forty hours. These extra days can often be taken off with little notice, so many people in Paris simply didn't go to work today, and those who did work showed up late and left early. If the strike drags on for a week or more -- and most unions have already voted to continue it tomorrow -- it will be an entirely different story. Things could degrade further if the students take to the streets as many have threatened to in protest of proposed university reforms.

I think that this time around most French want change, and a backlash of public opinion will stop the strikes before a week passes. I can't say, however, and with nowhere to go at the moment, I can't help but watch with curiosity.

In honor of the strikes, le Petit decided he'd try out a new mode of transportation today, the Moby wrap. For the very first time he agreed to let me take him for a quick tour of the neighborhood in it, holding his head up for the first half of the trip, then letting it fall against my chest as he slept for the second. It'll be years before he has to worry if the Métro is running and for the moment, Mom is more than happy to work without pay, every day of the year.

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