Give Way

I have been silent for a while. This is mostly because I have been busy, but also because I try, in each new blog post, to tackle a slightly different subject and, well, let’s just say that France is a country very averse to change…

As the nation plunged into yet another national rail strike (Air France workers went en grève, too, for good measure), I thought idly about writing about it, then wondered whether there was anything really new to say. Yes, this time it was Emmanuel Macron rather than François Hollande facing down the fearsome syndicats, but really it was still all about the cheminots, and I’d already written about them.

SNCF workers go en grève so regularly that their managers have designed and proudly advertise an app for your telephone that will tell you whether or not your train is one of the five TGVs out of every six that will be cancelled on strike days. Bim-bom-bah goes the airy SNCF jingle as they encourage you to use the app with cheer enough to make you wonder whether, by tapping its icon, you might actually be able to reinstate your train…

The organisers of an annual trip to London by pupils at a Lyon secondary school did not find the app all that helpful when it told them that the TGV due to transport the party to a connecting Eurostar would not be running. They telephoned the SNCF for help. These were school children, they explained. Their Eurostar tickets and hotel rooms had been pre-paid: surely there was something the national rail operator could do for them? Beh, il faut arriver à la gare à 6h et négocier pour des places dans le train qui va partir à 7h25, they were told, helpfully. Having no other option, this is what they did. Of course, their negotations were fruitless and they went home instead of to London.

Meanwhile, the country’s esteemed leader went to a primary school to give a discours about how he would not give in to the strike, as so many of his predecessors have done. The SNCF was in need of reform if it was to compete in Europe. He would stand firm. Somewhere during the hour-long speech (pity the small children), he even noted that his grandfather had been a cheminot and that he felt their pain.

The story of the strike may attract wall-to-wall media coverage, but it’s hard to see what the poor newsreaders find to say about it day-in, day-out as the situation remains exactly the same as it was on day one. It could be summarized in four short sentences: SNCF workers oppose all reform on a thin-end-of-the-wedge basis. The government wants reform. Both sides announce that they will not accept anything other than victoire à cent pour cent. Stalemate.

I encountered a metaphor for this dismally unchanging situation the other day as I was driving to collect the kids from their holiday club. Halfway down the hill on which we live is a little square on which various streets converge, some of them so narrow that they are one-way only, others narrowed by the cars littered carelessly along them on either side. We have to pass through Place Lasalle to get to any sort of main thoroughfare, and so I headed that way.

As I arrived I saw that my path was blocked by a shiny quatre quatre facing in the direction I wanted to go, and towing a remorque. Facing this, and bumper-to-bumper with it, was a much smaller car. Neither was budging. No other vehicle would be able to get through until one of them did.

I dared take a photo, but didn’t want to get too close…

Warily, I surveyed the situation. You never know when the driver of a car will turn out to be a Madame Lipstick, so I am always reluctant to make the first move. After, maybe, deux minutes, the male driver of the 4×4 got out and sauntered over to my car. I wound down the window. Elles refusent de bouger, he said, indicating the two women smoking and laughing in the front of the other car: moi, je ne peux pas reculer car il y a la remorque. It was true. He would not be able to reverse with the trailer attached.

Undoubtedly the man had irritated them, but perhaps they would reason with me, I thought to myself, temporarily forgetting that I was no longer in the land of ACAS, tea and “terribly sorry”. I walked over to the other car. The two twenty-somethings didn’t need to wind down the windows as they were already hanging out of them, fags in hand. Before I could even begin my remonstrance, they battered me with an onslaught of excuses. The driver of the 4×4 was con. He had insulté-d them. There was no way they would budge when it was sa faute, etc etc. Summoning my deepest reserves of Gallic insouciance, I told them that I m’en fiche-d whose fault it was. That, as Monsieur Quatre quatre clearly could not recule, and I needed to cherche mes enfants, wasn’t the most pragmatic solution for them to reverse (as it certainly wasn’t anyone else’s fault)? … Pretty s’il vous plait

…They laughed at me. The driver of the 4×4 shrugged in a je vous l’avais dit sort of way. Cars built up behind the two women, and two vehicles appeared behind me. Nobody moved a muscle at the source of the blockage.

So, I did the equivalent what all reasoning SNCF passengers do every day: I executed a twenty-three point turn and inched back past the cars lined up behind me, then went the long-way round to the main road. Five minutes later, as I drove past the exit I should have used, I saw that the queue was mounting…

5 thoughts on “Give Way

  1. Back in the day, before priorité à droite, right of way went to the more expensive car, or, if they were equal, to the person of higher social standing. Seriously. Priorité à droite was practically communist.
    Sometimes I think the quatre quatre drivers are trying to go back to the good old days. In this case, he might have been right about not being able to back up, though usually these two-way-traffic-but-one-way-at-a-time roads have signs indicating which direction gets to go first.

    1. I did not know this… I have been horrified by the multiplication of quatre quatres on the roads, particularly round us (where the streets are also particularly unsuitable for gargantuan vehicles). Bang goes my vision of Thierry Henri zipping round in a tiny Clio. I also instinctively suspected the flash car driver of arrogance and the fallacy that the big car always wins. However, I was less convinced when I met the two occupants of the other car. Helpfully there are zero signs. I suspect that what happened in the end was that the accumulating spectators helped him to manually remove his remorque so that he could back up. It would have been deeply interesting to stay and watch had I not already been running late. Thanks for stopping by!

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