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In Full Flight: Escaping France as Population Takes to the Streets

December 5th, 2019 · No Comments · France, Paris

Of all the dreamy ideals France and Paris elicit among visitors or expatriates, one joker in the deck often goes overlooked:

The French predilection for taking to the streets in protest whenever they are unhappy with their government.

And, just now, they are plenty unhappy with the regime of Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president.

To the point that unions called for a general strike — asking all of the country’s unions to “down tools” beginning today, Thursday, December 5 — to remind the government that French workers are in charge when it comes to policy.

As the strikers were gearing up for action on Wednesday, we were on an Air France A-380 jumbo jet traversing the North Atlantic. Getting out of Dodge, you might call it.

(Though it was simple dumb luck and slightly cheaper prices that put us in the air one day ahead of the storm.)

Visitors and expats tend to overlook one major aspect of the French experience:

The country at many times seems nearly ungovernable.

Before addressing the big issues of the general strike, let me describe one “small” incident that played out on a narrow country road in the south of France.

Back in the spring, the government decided it would set national speed limits, and included in the law was a seemingly innocuous reduction in limits on country roads: From 90 kilometers per hour (about 56 mpg) to 80 kph (about 50 mph).

Most everyone in France prefers to speed, even on country roads, but no one should, given that rural roads often are two-way despite being alarming narrow. No center divider, not even a strip of paint, in many cases.

(Many is the time I have closed my eyes while oncoming drivers streak past me.)

However, many French drivers were ticked off at this reduction in legal speeds and the idea of Big Brother keeping tabs on them. So what did they do?

They attacked the radar meant to gauge their speed, destroying the heavy metal device placed at a dangerous curve in a road near where we live. They beat it, battered it, burned it. It was a scarred, smoking mess.

The government? It went out and put down another speed-checking machine — and it also was destroyed.

It was not replaced.

Even the French government does not clearly understand that the French people scoff at nearly any law that bothers them — and face little or no repercussions.

So, back to the general strike. What will be quickly noticed will be in the transportation grid, especially in big cities. In Paris, only two of 14 subway lines will be open. Nearly all the regional trains and the national, high-speed trains were cancelled. Woe to anyone who wanted to get from home to their office in the big city. Oh, and nearly all buses will be idled. Employees not involved in the strike could walk to work or maybe get a taxi.

Why? Well, there are real issues involved. France has very generous retirement packages, many of them awarded during the 1950s and 1960s when the French economy was booming.

Macron, the country’s president and a former hedge-fund manager, wants to reform the country’s chaotic pension system: at last count, the government is involved in 42 pension systems.

Macron wants to streamline that, rationalize it, but all it has gotten him are national poll numbers worse than Donald Trump’s.

Now, it is a waiting game. Can the strikers hold on till the government cracks? (Historically, this is what happens.) Or can the government hold on until the the average citizen turns against the unions and the many inconveniences in commuting and shopping. Call that the “Gilet Jaunes” (yellow vests) Strategy (named after the safety vests French drivers must carry.)

A year ago, small-town France rebelled against a hike in diesel fuel and attacked many toll gates and travel nodes on the road system. Eventually, national support for the yellow vests faded, and the government went on.

A year ago, we left France on the first day the yellow vests got busy, returning to SoCal. We missed a lot of hassle over the next nine or 10 or nine weeks, our friends told us.

This time, we flew out of France the day before the general strike began, and likely will miss a lot more chaos.

(And let’s spare a thought for first-time tourists to the country whose plans are now wrecked.)

We will be gone for a couple of months. Maybe someone can figure out a solution before we return. Maybe everyone quickly will get tired of the drama. Probably not.


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