Monday, February 2, 2009

Black Thursday in France

On a cold sunny January day, the hourly workers of France took to the streets to voice their discontent with worsening social conditions, economic woes and the policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy. The strike, in accordance with French law, was announced well in advance and closed down parts of public transportation, schools, hospitals, the post office and private industry.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a French rendition of U.S. President George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" faux pas, once said : "From now on when there is a strike in France, no one will even notice." (Click here to see how one group of strike organizers used the president's words to bring out the demonstrators.) Walking the streets of Paris, it was difficult not to notice the estimated 300,000 people who marched from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de l'Opéra. Estimates for the total number of demonstrators in France varied from 1.6 million to 2.5 million depending on whether government or union figures were used.

Even though the cause is a serious one, protesters in France know how to have a good time. Bands play, balloons fly and people sing. Amid the chants, the Obama mantra of "Yes We Can," pronounced with just a slight French accent, blasted through loudspeakers while people cheered. Strikes are economically costly (some estimates say as high as 300-400 million euros per day), but from my vantage point, it certainly looked good for the local economy of the vendors, cafes and restaurants lining the route of the march.

In France, to go on strike or "faire la grève" has a long and illustrious history. The expression comes from the grève of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, which was a gravel beach where ships discharged their cargo. Although originally applied to out of work laborers who gathered on the grève hoping to find work, the expression eventually morphed into one meaning an intentional work stoppage. The right to strike was taken away from French workers during the Second World War by the Vichy government. It was restored in 1946 and since then, the French have made good use of their right.

The January 29 strike disrupted transport for a day, but in 1995 a general strike ground France to a standstill for almost a month. There was no public transport at all so central Paris was deserted at night. If you were willing to walk, it was a good time to go to the theater since cancellations were numerous and even previously sold-out shows had seats available. With tickets in hand, we trudged across Paris and arrived at the theater just before curtain time. The lobby was empty except for the theater manager who greeted us by name. What service, but how could he possibly know us? The answer was clear a moment later when he ushered us into the salle: only one other person was in the audience. We took our places in the front row next to our fellow theater goer and in that time-honored rule of the theater, the show went on.

Vive la grève!

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To see more photos, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. What's the beautiful painting?


Thanks for your comments.