Saturday, June 21, 2008

Liberty, Equality and Strikes

The other morning, I thought I heard rioters outside my door. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people were hurling incomprehensibly; traffic had come to a standstill; I could smell tear gas. Nevertheless, I ventured outside. Call me foolhardy if you wish, but I needed to buy some bread for lunch…

A substantial portion of the unruly mob was shabbily dressed. Men with straggling grey hair and corduroy trousers were brandishing placards; ferocious-looking women were punching the air with menace. The strains of a seventies’ protest song struggled to keep afloat above the chanting crowd while police stood on street corners looking a trifle bored. I spotted my daughter’s history teacher and nodded pleasantly. Ho hum. The teachers were on strike. Again.

The origins of the phrase faire grève, which means ‘to go on strike’, have more to do with looking for work than stopping it. The word grève means ‘gravel’ and by extension ‘shore’. In Paris, in the fourteenth century, workers would wait on the ‘shore’ of the Seine hoping for employment when the ships came in. The area was known as Place de Grève and functioned as a sort of job centre without the paperwork. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that the phrase acquired its present meaning, when it finally became legal to go on strike.

Oh, they like a bit of Revolution, do the French. Look at Robespierre. He would have been right up front today with a megaphone and a handful of flyers, egging everybody on. Indeed, these strikes are a sort of Reign of Terror, although the rolling of heads is just a figure of speech and the only chops to be had are lamb ones sizzling on the barbecue set up in front of the Préfecture (this is France, remember, and not even strikers would forgo their lunch). And who could forget mai ’68, when a student protest meeting in Paris sparked off a month of violent riots involving not only students but workers, school children, teachers and university lecturers? In a spectacular example of overreaction, the CRS – French riot police – were immediately sent in with truncheons and tear gas. The demonstrators reacted by building barricades, setting cars alight and hurling paving slabs. Hundreds of people were wounded on la nuit des barricades (the Night of the Barricades), including seventy-two policemen, but this merely added fuel to the fire. The trade unions joined the movement and by the end of les évènements, over ten million strikers had brought the whole country to a standstill. De Gaulle had even contemplated bringing in the army…

Yet, despite the violence and the inevitable shake-up of French society, the demonstrators aroused much public sympathy and this is still the case whenever there is a strike. In 1997, the lorry drivers went on strike and blocked access to the refineries so nobody could get any petrol. Did anyone complain? No. Even my (sort of ex) husband, whose fuse is so short he makes Basil Fawlty look like a monk on Prozac, happily stacked jerry cans full of petrol in the garage without so much as a murmur. And what about the civil servants? Normally the target of vicious and paranoid mutterings from the seventy-five per cent of the French population who do not work for the state, they suddenly become paradigms of virtue whenever they go on strike. Or maybe it’s just not that easy to tell the difference… Striking while the iron is hot, so to speak, the unions make sure they cause a maximum of inconvenience to everybody - which is, of course, the point. We all know that every year, the postmen will go on strike in the run up to Christmas and the dustbin men will choose the hottest month of summer.

Ask any French person if they think all this is thoughtless, foolish or downright mean and they’ll reply cheerfully that no – it’s democracy. Strange, then, that a mere ten per cent of the French working population belong to a trade union, compared to twenty per cent in the United Kingdom and a whopping eighty per cent in Sweden. Another French paradox, evidently…

Back to this morning, and as I waded through the throng in an attempt to reach the boulangerie on the other side of the road, I thought fondly of my seventeen year old daughter. She has also been on demonstrations for the past four Thursday afternoons with the rest of the lycéens, protesting against a proposed educational reform. How mature she is for her age, I mused – she has already found a cause to fight for! Was I witnessing a political activist in the making? A future leader of the Green Party, perhaps?

“So, dear,” I asked her at lunchtime. “Why exactly are you doing this?”

My daughter shrugged.

“Well,” she said. “There’s a chance I might be on telly…and also I get to miss maths.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.