Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Feature - Reforms, Rants and Rationalizations, OH MY!! (Bonjour Paris Guestage)

Crossposting here, read it on Bonjour Paris!

Here it comes. Day one of the latest bout of major national strikes against the retirement reform. I feel like the French have become a lot of fisherman, frantically reeling in seaweed strands from an empty lake, and then getting so upset they tip their boat over.

I know you're mad. I know it's unfair. But, just because some bully came & stole your lunch money, doesn't mean you have to dump my hamburger into my lap. What? That's what it feels like to me. They crap on you, so you crap on the nation. So there. Take that, nation! ... oh wait.. you... didn' anything.

If I were the government I'd be laughing at us. We're face-punching ourselves, our limbs have gone rogue. I get why the strike is happening, and I get that people are trying to provoke a reaction, but how many politicians do you know who take the metro?

This strike literally has no end in sight. The great pout could go on for weeks, nay, MONTHS, and there's absolutely nothing the rest of us can do about it but get smooshed in the trains. Harrumph.

This is not the first, and probably not the last time I'll blog about this. Paris + reform = strike. That's the long & short of it.

The expat community in Paris is pretty magical, so I asked them to share their two cents. I asked them:

Why is it that transportation industry strikes more than anything else? Do we rely on them to do our striking for us or do they just hate their jobs more than the average Jean? What's your take on the strike? Do you think it's helpful? Do you think it will get something accomplished? Yay or Nay?

Lay it on me.

And here's what they said! Thanks to everyone who chimed in, looking forward to what our readers have to say as well!

Thus said the tweeps & bleeps:

THE SKY IS FALLING! Oh no, that's just snow...and strikes. Both disasters - whether induced by Mother Nature or Mother F--kers - turn Paris (and all hope of a normal schedule) upside down. Case in point: today, I've already had a press conference, a lunch meeting and an afternoon rendez-vous cancelled, all due to "la grève." (Or perhaps I smell?) ENOUGH ALREADY! Want to get the French government's attention? Note: THEY DON'T TAKE THE METRO. Or the bus. Or the RER. Find a French politician's chauffeur and kidnap him - that would be more effective. Steal his cigarettes. Cancel his lunch reservation at l'Arpège. Or tell his wife about his mistress (oh, she already knows - nice try). THAT would be a more effective strategy. But causing daily pain to us plebians just trying to get through the many arrondissements that is the escargot of Paris? Not fair. The strikes are part of what makes France, France. A 60 year-old French guy actually wanting to rush off to work (after a trip to the gym for 40-minutes on the ellyptical followed by a Lipitor-filled smoothie then a doctor's check-up- oh wait, sorry I'm confusing him with an AMERICAN 60ish year-old, the French guy actually listened to the radio for 40 minutes, smoked a cigarette and ate a slice of baguette with butter then left for his 2.5-hour lunch break) is not a French man at all. But I feel for you, Monsieur De la Lazy, you've worked hard* (*by French standards) your whole life and you want a break. OK, great. Protest. Yell. Scream. March in the streets (well not mine, but you get the idea). But don't mess with my metro.

Rebecca's response cracked me up. :) True, all that.

There was a sentence by a writer at in this article on the strikes: "The government is the one side that has showed flexibility and a willingness to negotiate, whereas unions are indoctrinated and being quite stubborn in the face of economic realities. "

I agree with what is written there. I was talking to my American friend who lives in the south of France about the strikes and she said what we have right now is what happens when people "cry wolf" too often, which is what happens every time there is a strike (and she has lived in France for 14 years, too, and seen this over and over): every time a new contested issue comes up, the ante is raised, and the game of bluff ensues, and the stubborn unions come off as being so because they have to keep up the appearance of not being pansies when it comes to concessions. I think the unions are doing just this right now - but they are playing a game at which they can't win. If the age of retirement is not raised, pretty soon the entire social system is at risk, and the French of the future will find that they are not retiring until they are 99 to be able to keep the current system going. Okay, so 99 is a bit of an exaggeration. But with the age of mortality creeping higher and higher, people at 60 often still have a good 5-10 years of work in them! I can understand wanting to retire, I really can. And retirement at 60 would be great. But when every person in other developed nations is working until the age of 65 before being able to cash in on benefits, 62 still sounds pretty peachy!

Anyway, something has got to give. If unions do not agree to the age of retirement at 62 and if a cohort of people are not willing to be the first to do it, something else will eventually have to be sacrificed. And when it comes to that, I guess then the whole process will ensue again in the endless cycle of how these things get worked out in France.

In the meantime, as a foreign expat, I kind of like to just sit back and play sideline analyst. :) Backseat driver. That kind of thing. Kind of like this. :)

Marina  (s: I should tell you all, Marina is a Frenchie! Yes, they answer too!!)
You probably guessed that I support the strike. As always with this government, the decision has been taken without consulting unions.

For me the argument: "in Europe and in the rest of the world they did the same" is not valid. First, they did the same but not as brutal as it is in France (they took more time).And, in France, we have a special way of life and we want and need to keep it.
The argument: "we don't have the money" doesn't seem really solid when you consider the "bouclier fiscal" and the money they found to save the banks last year.
Finally, as a woman, I'm outraged that we need to work during the same time as men. We are payed less than them, need to stop working to raise the kids...

I don't know if it will change something but it's always good to show that French people are pissed off with the government and his unfair decisions. Just to let them know that at the next election they will be in danger.

Having lived in France for the past 22 years, I've learned unions (declining in membership) strike first and then negotiate. How much inconvenience they cause is another story. I have attended so many strikes that feel more like a 4th of July parade -- where people sing, chant, and NATURALLY eat. There's are always food trucks.

If you're not trying to get from here to there (the hell with the office), people form a type of solidarity. I've hitchhiked, ridden on the back of motor-scooters, biked and confined my projects to places I can walk. BUT = I cyber commute no matter where I am so I have a definite advantage.

The key point is the government is not going to cave over the pension reform. As an American, the idea of retiring at 62 sounds pretty good to me. France has the lowest retirement age in the EU. Germany's retirement age is 65 and it's being upped to 67.

Yes, the trains are a mess, canceled flights (although not long haul ones) cause havoc. The Eiffel Tower is closed today. If I had one day in Paris, I could be upset.

One thing I do want to weigh in over is the fact that CNN, France 24 and other media outlets can cause things to look worse than the reality.

As for the students weighing in - some are smart enough to have voiced they know life expectancy is much longer than it was when the pension system was established.

Strikes to worry about - dock strikes, truckers because of the movement of goods (e.g. food). Would my bet be this will be the last strike = no. Do I think there will be more days of disruption - yes!

My worries are more centered on France's economy, the Euro zone and the fact that too much bread is being pre-made. BUT, I would NOT live anyplace but Paris.

Please forgive me if I am sounding ditsier than usual. I am having some eye problems and if there aren't a zillion typos here, I would be shocked.

Honestly, while the strikes are a giant inconvenience if you're entering or leaving France, it is the media that dramatizes the situation subsequently wasting everyone's time. The metros run almost normally as do the buses, and the strikes simply attests to the fact that the French are still gung-ho about fighting for what they believe in. Of course, what these protesters want is unrealistic - unless you've been working since age 15, like my neighborhood baker, you've got 42 years of work ahead of you. The fact is, the French retire earlier than other EU countries and even those with late retirement are in the process of pension reform (like Germany and even the United States). Yes, it invariably garners an eye roll when one speaks of the proverbial strike but it's emblematic of their undying sense of solidarity and freedom of expression. I can only imagine what kind of disaster America would turn into if something like this were to take place - but life goes on and regardless of whether or not their demands are met or ignored, their energy will be redirected to another folly of society. It's just a question of when. So either we laugh and think to ourselves, well it could be a lot worse, or we ruin our own days by buying into the drama perpetuated by the media from all corners of the world. I choose the former!

I've experienced many strikes over my years in France. I can definitely say that I have never agreed with the reasons for any of the strikes. I am also pretty sure that by inconveniencing me and the rest of the general public, you're not accomplishing much besides annoying people to the point where they no longer support your cause (if they did to begin with). That said, my reaction to strikes has been very different depending on who was striking. For example:

High school teacher strikes in 1998-99 => "Hell yeah, class is canceled!"

High school student strikes in 1998-99 => "Wow this protesting thing is pretty fun! Lycéens en colère, y'en a marre de cet'...What? my backpack is open? My wallet was stolen during this great moment of high school solidarity? F***ing, stupid, French students and their worthless strike! This would never have happened in Wisconsin!"

Garbage strike in Gare d'Austerlitz circa 2001 => "OMG the stench! This is unbearable, please give them whatever they want so they come back to work and pick up all this garbage! OMG...RAT!"

General strikes, RATP included, 2004 => "Man, I'm exhausted after walking for 1 1/2 hours to get to this final exam, I hope I can stay awake long enough to finish the test and walk all the way home! What? The final is postponed because no one showed up due to the strikes and I'm the only idiot who walked all the way to school?! F***ing fonctionnaires! You should all be fired, you lazy jerks! I would have aced that final,too!"

Indeed! it's like les grevistes are pissing off the wrong group: commuters, you know the people going to work... and paying taxes which fund retirement. Merci et vive la solidarité! Signing off, to start walking to work tomorrow morning.

Do I agree with the current strikes in France against pension reforms? No I don’t! Why? Well, I’m not a expert on French politics but my reasons are pretty basic. It’s because it’s the same old, same old, isn’t it? I mean, it’s the same people that are striking as for every other strike, whenever they want to moan about something all the rail workers go on strike bringing the country to a standstill don’t they? Not so long ago the same people were on strike because they were having their Charcoal Bonus taken away from them – how long has it been since any of the French trains ran on charcoal? Needless to say their strikes ended in a positive result so the precedent has been set and anyone in France that’s unhappy now just has to throw their toys out of the pram like an angry child.

Of course this isn’t the soul reason of my anti-pension-reform-strike sentiments. I believe that it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee in France. Retirement age here is one of the youngest in Europe and many other countries are also having to review pensionable age so it’s not as if France is alone. It’s time to face facts: with the extended life expectancy in France it’s just not realistic to expect to retire at 60 not to mention the fact that France is already crippled by debt and with all the baby boomers retiring now serious measures have to be taken to ensure that everyone will be able to retire.

Not to mention students! How many people do I know that are still students in France aged 28, 29 or even 30? I’m not talking about foreign students either or mature students, I’m talking about people who have never worked (it’s not that normal to get a student job here), never contributed to the system and are now demonstrating in the streets so that they get their pension? In my view if you have the luxury of a long further education which will generally enable you to make loads more dosh than someone with a “standard” education then isn’t it fair that you should work the appropriate number of years and not just expect to retire early?

Then you get the mugs like me who started work at 18, did a business degree whilst working, contribute heavily and for ages into the system with little benefits because of self employment status and who probably won’t get a pension anyway.

Whilst all of this is going on, other changes are being made to the French tax system and many people are completely ignorant to these changes. Middle class families are likely to be faced with higher tax bills due to the probable changes in the fiscal reductions for people that employ help at home such as a Nanny, cleaner or even after school tutoring. Many families take advantage of these fiscal advantages to employ someone thus creating legal jobs for those needing the cash and allowing them to contribute to the system all whilst saving on their tax bill. If this goes through it could cost the average family with children hundreds, if not thousands of Euros each year. Now, who’s in the streets demonstrating about that?

Sarkozy is correct in this case, the retirement age must be raised so that France can compete on the European and global playing field and in order to avoid bankruptcy and a ballooning deficit. Let's hope the government does not cave. Speaking personally - I need to board a flight from Paris to London tomorrow so that I can catch a flight back to NY. Fingers crossed that I will be able to get out. Tourism is huge business in France and constant interruptions of basic services also hurts this sector. Doni

Forest - @52martinis -
I must live in my own little world, because I took the metro this morning and didn't even notice there was a strike so I might not be the best person to ask about this week's Feature Friday question.  I should probably be embarrassed about that!

Power to the People!

Strikes are a historic and enduring part of the French vernacular: they are the means via which the public express their opinion in this country. But who decides on how to govern France, the people or the government? A democratically elected government should be the answer, but when the elected government go back on what they promised during their electoral campaign (no reforms to retirement, in this case), it makes sense that the people are up in arms. I for one am impressed when I see a whole nation of politically engaged people, who take an active interest in their future and who mobilize themselves to get their argument heard. The fact that the student unions are also involved I find particularly impressive - as they rightly argue, raising the age of retirement would be likely to have a dramatic impact on unemployment and thus would directly affect their work prospects.

This strike is one of the reasons I love this country and am proud to call it home. If I miss my flight tomorrow because of it however, I might become slightly less impressed. Champagne socialist, moi?

Paul - @parispaul -
Everybody in the world has an equal right to strike, the French are just more equal than most. A prime example was the winter I saw the jobless "strike" here because their unemployment benefits didn't include a large enough Christmas bonus. As shocking as that may be, what really gets up my nose is that, on strike days, the Metros run regularly all morning to take me to work so I can fill the corporate till, but are few and far between in the evening when the time comes for me to get home to my family. It seems to be a fair trade Union would be more concerned about the employees' shoes than the CEOs' pockets. That said, all this is rather moot for me as regards the issue at hand because the only retiring I'll be doing in my foreseeable future is for the evening.

Living in Paris for only one year, I'm still trying to understand and accept the many 'French ways', ie, the culture of striking. I appreciate that the French take a stand on what they believe in, but is there no other way than to protest endlessly? Often at the inconvenience of the entire nation (and the many 'innocent' expats who would be very happy with 62 as a retirement age). Certainly this action will lead to discussions and eventual negotiations? (Or so my American optimism chooses to believe.)

With all this continual commuting chaos, thank God (and Delanoë) for the Vélib!

Cailin - @cailinash -
I should preface by saying I wholly support freedom of speech, the right to strike and civil rights.  However, being a Canadian I must say that we hardly strike about anything.  If we do, the government legislates us back to work within 3-5 days.  I understand fighting for what is right & just, but I just feel that far too many people maybe affected by the strike. Again, this is me being a Canadian but if I were a steel worker or even a student I would first think about how I would affect others around me and how they function in their everyday lives.  Like will the single mom be able to make it to work on time or the elderly person who needs to visit a loved one via the RER?  Again, just my two cents.  Although, if Canadians were to strike like the French I'm positive a lot more things would be done in this county for the greater good.

@JeremyRibando Pension reform is inevitable in most developed nations - including France.

@ParisCosy Yes, but in my office,too much work for me! I agree with the strike!!! you know it's important to make strike, in France!!^^

@petitfranceblog Yay. I think it's just what the French do, need to stand strong against the gov't & always on top of workers' rights. In their DNA :)


  1. I have to disagree with Marina when she says "we have a special way of life and we want and need to keep it." Why preserve a way of life that instills a total lack of responsibility, lack of community feeling, lack of anything except "give me everything, I give you nothing"? Everything in this country is a shambles and every single system needs to be reformed. Heavily reformed yet the French, bless their hearts, want to keep this failing system just the way it is. And the French want to keep their 35-hour work week, their 6 weeks paid vacation (not to mention holidays, "les ponts", etc), their "weekends"(say that with a French accent), yet also retire with a gorgeous pension at a younger age than any other country. Don't they get the connect between all the social services they receive and the fact that we need to pay into the system? I truly believe that few of those who are marching and striking truly understand the actual system, the actual laws, what reforms are needed and how these reforms actually will work. I also think that no one in this country has the courage to say no: no to students blocking public schools and not allowing free entry, no to high school students from skipping a month's worth of classes with no punishment (strike? how can one strike if one isn't working?), no to unions who bring the country to a halt. I am fed up of watching this!

  2. marina says: "For me the argument: "in Europe and in the rest of the world they did the same" is not valid. First, they did the same but not as brutal as it is in France (they took more time)"

    In other words, proces of reforming the retirement legislation should have begin earlier! I agree with that... so were was the former gouverment, socialist, by the way, when things needed to get started???? Playing Santa Clause to the french people who really need to now not to depend on the government to take car of them all the time !

  3. Hey Jamie,
    thanks for commenting :) I understand both sides of the argument... it's annoying as F#%@, and the destruction of rights is a tragedy.
    Keep'em comin'!

  4. I also want to comment to @piglet -- I have a house cleaner... it's true the tax reductions are nice to have, and completely unnecessary. I'd be just dandy w/o them.

  5. Hi Shannon,
    I'm sure you're post is going to be very provactive and will get lots of reaction!

    On the cleaner, if you're paying 200 Euros a month then that's 100 Euros x 12 = 1200 Euros off your tax bill. Maybe you'd be happy to live without it, but for most families who are having childcare as well (coz Mum works), they'd be paying between 500 - 800 Euros a month, so 250 - 400 Euros x 12 = 3000 - 4800 Euros per year.

    The probably made the choice for Mum to go back to work and get childcare based on this saving.

    A lot of people (I'm not saying all) that provide childcare are only qualified in this domaine so if families are going to be hit by the taxman (and these are middle class families which are the ones struggling the most as they don't get many of the other social aids) then people are going to be put out of work.

    But there's no mention of this anywhere.

    How about people who were inticed to purchase a property during the recession because of being able to deduct the interest from their mortgage from their tax bill? Came into place in 2007 and is now being scrapped. Not really a necessary scheme I agree but it was introduced none the less and people made financial decisions during a difficult time because of this.

    So it's not just the likes of us who enjoy the perks of a cleaner, but its going to be middle France that are hit.

    I'm just saying that for me a lot of people currently striking have got their priorities wrong and after 14 years of living in France it just gets on my nerves.

    God you can tell this strike is getting up my nose can't you?

  6. ps. As I'm not based in Paris I was wondering if maybe people outside of the French capital are affected differently to those in Paris?

    A few examples of how I've been affected are the trains - I can't get to meetings in other parts of France and also petrol - people are stock buying and prices have risen plus queues are huge and everyones in the supermarkets panic buying.

    Is this the case in Paris also? I noticed Lindsey mentions that there hasn't been too much of an impact?

  7. Good points all Piglet :) When do you run for office?!

  8. LOL! My Hubby (French) has been saying that French politics don't know what they're missing out on for years!!! Its easy as a bystander but I can't wait to get my right to vote here, believe me!

  9. When I first moved to France almost 4 years ago I didn't agree with strikes because of the inconvenience caused to me. I'd booked flights months in advance, only to find there would be a strike on that day, and there were no trains to Lyon (2.5 hours away). I even wrote about it on my blog and got some very nasty comments and even spawned another blogger to write about how I and other ex-pats didn't understand. Since then, I've tried to make very little noise about the strikes. I've kept my opinions for only my close French friends and opened friendly debates with them.

    French people have a good life (and most know it)- they work a lot less hours than most other countries, they have a great healthcare system, university is practically free, they have lots of holidays, and they retire at 60 with a reasonable pension. BUT, I understand that they've fought with strikes to have and to keep life like this.

    I'm not sure that this strike will achieve much because with an ageing population and a country in debt it's inevitable that something must change.

    In Clermont-Ferrand I can hear the manifestation going on outside my office and my house (I was woken up this morning my the Lyceens!!). I know that the buses and trams don't work on the main strike days and they are less frequent on these flow-on strike days. The trains are are less frequency. It is a smallish city, so I (and most of my friends and colleagues) don't rely on public transport to get to and from work. However, I will be hoping that flights are not disturbed next Wednesday when my boyfriend is scheduled to arrive in France!!

  10. I really should have checked my spelling and grammar! Sorry that was terrible... must be the yelling going on outside my window!!

  11. Ask me again next week when I have to go from the 19th to Roissy to Porte Maillot and then back to the 19th.

  12. The French have been striking since the Romans invaded. They'll never stop. End of story. But regardless, the retirement age WILL go up later if not sooner. People will have to work longer anyway to earn enough to retire on, because as they will see, their alloted "retraite" will not be enough with the rate that inflation is rising. I know I will be working until I'm 70!

  13. @Kiwi Hope your BF gets to visit! It's true that strikes cause quite the inconvenience. My french friends who support them would argue that it's for a greater good. I think it's annoying as f*ck, but honestly it hasn't been so bad for me personally.

    @Paul: YUCK. Why on earth would you consider doing that this week?? Are you MAD?

    @Prete: I hear you. I've been working since I turned 17... wish I could count that shit! Gar.

  14. Hello Shannon. I have nothing to add. Sorry. You asked me if I wanted to take part, and I would, but I'm not that political a beast. I'm too ironic and cynical and think they're all mad. Everyone's points are excellent. It's tempting to hate the strikers. OK, I hate the strikers. But I'm not French, so I shut my bouche and 'enjoy' the experience. At least it gives us something to blitch about...

  15. Oh sab... despite yourself there was an opinion in there lol. Besides, we all need a good blitch fest now & again.

  16. PS: I could never give my opinion as well as this:

  17. Aloha Shannon!
    Thanks for the great reading : ) I read a bunch of posts and found myself laughing my ass off so I am now going to be a faithful pressure! Paris is one of my favorite cities, so not only do I get to be graced with your humor, I get to keep up with french current affairs. Bonus!

  18. Talk about entitlement -- they have a certain lifestyle to maintain, oh how I wish it were thay way here in the States. As of the moment, however, my husband and I plan to cancel our trip to Paris which is scheduled for November 2-10. Si triste. as I say aurevoir to Paris!

    Si triste. . Bonne chance mes amis!

    Toujour l'amour....


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