There is a new element within my highly complex schedule of pre-travel tasks. I am in France, and therefore, before travelling anywhere where there is any importance attached to the timeliness of my arrival, I have to scour the web for information on current, likely, and even wildly improbable grèves by transport workers.
If this sounds a bit hysterical, I can assure you that, au contraire, this is but a sensible precaution. For, in conformance with national stereotype, France really is a nation of strikers. Last year, for example, elements of the SNCF were on strike from 12 June until 13 July. I know this because, when choosing the location of our house, my husband, having naïvely taken the timetable at face value, had assumed that he would be able to commute to work by train. During last summer’s strike he was forced to get to work by a variety of alternative methods, swapping his half-hour door-to-door for: hours spent in Lyon’s notorious bouchons; lifts hitched from virtual strangers; tasters of every last one of Lyon’s vast array of public transport methods; scooting (of the trotinette variety); cycling; walking; and, throughout all of this, probably, weeping.
Why? Whenever there is a strike in England, whether or not you sympathise with the strikers, there is always a very simple reason given: “No more pay cuts!”; “No to job losses!”; or “Save our pensions!”. Here in France it is more complicated. The long train strike last summer, for example, was caused by some people called the cheminots. They were protesting because they wanted to rescind rail reforms, the purpose of which was to stabilise the 44 billion Euro debt of the French rail sector by grouping the train and track operators into a single public entity, thus paving the way for opening the sector to competition. Try sticking that on a placard. Even before I got through writing the first half of this explanation I was bored, and boredom is not a known precursor to sympathy, let alone ardent support. Add to this the fact that the cheminots have been striking intermittently on this issue since 2010, and that, last July, the cost to the SNCF was estimated at 160 million Euros – presumably only adding to the size of the debt to be tackled – and by now I have started to positively dislike the cheminots, poor lambs.
More interesting perhaps than the strike itself was the public reaction to it. In England, after a single day of rail strikes, apocalyptic speeches will be made in Parliament; headlines everywhere will scream about an impending return to the misery of the 1970s; and on station platforms across the land there will be murderous mutterings. On this side of la manche, the strike made the news but everyone seemed to take it pretty calmly, even as the strike dragged into its fourth week. My husband sought to introduce some good old British grumbling about it into the conversation with his colleagues during their semi-obligatory lunch break, but was startled to discover that their attitude was pretty bof. During shorter, unannounced, strikes, he has found himself waiting at seven o’clock in the morning for a train that never arrives, and has reported that, instead of indignantly stampeding the harassed and helpless man in the ticket office, the disappointed commuters merely emit a small raspberry noise and turn quietly back.
It could be this indifference that enables grévistes to down-tools for quite such long periods of time. Perhaps, also, it is the well-oiled infrastructure that swings into place at the first whiff of trouble. British transport strikes are chaotic, and therefore more deadly. In France, the rail authorities are ready: they have several websites that will tell you precisely which trains will be cancelled, and which not. There may only be a single train every two hours, but at least you know in advance which it will be. One can only presume that somewhere there is an entire office full of people permanently charged with rescheduling and disseminating information. Viewed in this light, of course, the strikers are actually creating jobs in this beleaguered economy.
I would not want you to get the impression that the cheminots are the only workers partial to a bit of regular strike action. Oh no. Farmers have been known to be so moved by the risk of losing European subsidies that they have blocked roads with hay bales. In the winter, taxi drivers blocked Paris in protests about Uber, the private driver service that seems to have been fairly well assimilated in other countries. At the moment, in fact most of the time, lorry drivers are protesting about, well, I don’t know, the colour of their vehicles, perhaps. They are not so much striking as driving very slowly on some of France’s main arterial roads, giving rise to the term opération escargot. Sometimes this protest even seeps across the channel and bemused Kentish motorists find themselves confronted with lines of stationary French lorries indulging in a bit of Operation Stack.
Should you think that protest is a phenomenon confined to the working classes, think again. For the last week I have been woken up, not to the sound of French newsreaders running the end of one sentence into the beginning of the next, but to the sounds of Gallic crooning, because the workers of Radio France are on strike. There was a period when I could not enter a pharmacy without being asked to sign a petition against the notion that everyday drugs such as paracetamol could be sold anywhere other than in a pharmacy (in W.H. Smith, for example: quelle horreur!), and, in the new year, doctors were on administrative strike because they did not want to move to a system where treatment was free at the point of use (instead of paid at the point of use and then reimbursed later according to a predictably Byzantine set of principles).
So, my Anglo-Saxon friends, next time you don’t like the food in your work canteen, don’t just grumble about it. You could stage a sit in, or a walk out, or you could organise a march on DEFRA. You could do almost anything. Just don’t take it lying down.