today is supposed to be my first day in classes but today is also a grève générale (general strike) here in france. quelle surprise, non?
i’m trying not to take any political stance; i know some of you are socialists while others of you believe socialism is a willingness to pay for other people’s crack. so i’m not making any judgments here and i’m sure my own opinions will change and develop as i’m still learning, trying to understand and experience first-hand as much as possible.
it can be hard to get people to talk to me about the strikes, as it seems that they’re aware of the common foreign perceptions of their strikes, and also hesitant to get too political. so my understanding of it is very rough, probably incomplete, and potentially incorrect, but this is france through my eyes, so welcome to my world of ignorance and confusion.
the lycée is surrounded by a fence with a large gate at the entrance and students gathered this morning and locked the gate and barricaded it with trash cans. the protesters allowed students who wanted to go into the school to pass and they were let in through a small side gate. conversely, while i was outside watching, i had a couple of teachers who mistook me for a hesitant student tell me “allez-y, mademoiselle”, to go ahead and join the demonstration (sidenote: as assistants, we don’t have the right to strike). after a few hours the police arrived and moved the trashcans inside the gates, to prevent them from being burned, which apparently has happened before. the students let the trashcans be moved and sat down in front of the gates, with no altercation between the police and the students.
one of the secretaries told me that not all of the students demonstrating outside the school were from this lycée, but that students from other schools gathered here and she thought the majority of our students were in class. striking is, however, completely within their legal rights as long as they don’t damage property or become violent. by 1 p.m. all the protesters were gone.
now what was this strike actually about? all the information i have is coming from education unions’ pamphlets about the strike and teachers and school employees giving their opinions, so grain of salt as they obviously have a bias and i’m blind to a lot of the nuances that are probably present.
the students’ demonstration was one piece of today’s general strike, which included “employees in the public and private sectors, youth, retirees, and those deprived of work”, striking and demonstrating here in aix and on a larger local scale in marseille. the strikes are generally against sarkozy’s policies that aim to lower the national deficit. to me, the most focused-upon issue appears to be retirement and pension reforms, which involve, among other things, pushing back the age of retirement to 62. the chatel education reforms are also being protested. i honestly am still unclear on the full extent of these reforms, but they involve budget and job cuts and a reduction of instruction in certain subjects. the pamphlet by the snes (one of the largest education unions in france) also cites exclusion and inequality by the government, which i was told refers to the recent expulsion of illegal romanian gypsies from france, and gender inequality.
striking is most definitely a part of the french way of life and of the caricature of a French person. they smoke, eat baguettes and cheese, wear berets, and will strike if only because it’s a tuesday. and while there is some seed of truth in all of those (except for the berets—I’ve yet to see a real live french person wearing a beret), it’s also a very one-dimensional portrayal. they know that this is a part of their foreign identity; i’ve had more than one person remark to me today that i’m getting “a real french experience”, and ask me if i didn’t wish i was back in america where it was calm.
the strikes are definitely disruptive to productivity, and there probably are some people involved who don’t really feel passionate about the issues at hand. despite that, i‘m impressed by the lack of political apathy. there is a real belief that if enough of them stand together in protest, change will have to occur. students who aren’t even old enough to vote are taking action against policies with which they don’t agree. retirees who will never be affected by the current pension reforms are in the streets demonstrating. so whether or not i agree with their political stance or believe striking is the best way to produce change, i can’t help but admire that they are optimistically taking action with empathy for the problems of others. it highlights for me the problem of political apathy in america, especially among the youth.
that said, you have your good and your bad everywhere. for instance, publicly urinating on sidewalks is not tolerated in america, while for frenchmen it unfortunately seems to be the status quo.