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(A sneering article worth reading.)
NY Times, June 12, 2018
Can Strikes in France Still Make a Difference?
By Alissa J. Rubin
PARIS — Spring in France is strike season — not that strikes don’t
happen at other times of the year, but who wants to strike in wet, cold
weather or in the midst of a hot Parisian summer when everyone (strikers
included) wants to be on holiday?
René Bodiou, a 75-year-old with a full head of white hair, smiled as he
marched with fellow retired union members in the late May sun at a
recent protest. I fell in step with him and asked what he thought about
this year’s strike season.
“Nowadays, we have people who are too rich,” he said. “In the United
States, you do not care so much about equality, but we care about it.”
“It does not mean we all have to have the same amount of money, but we
all should get the same respect,” said Mr. Bodiou, a retired civil engineer.
But, he added, summing up a feeling that seemed to be shared by many on
the street around him: “Macron does not speak to those who are poor, who
sleep on the ground; he speaks to the people in the digital world, to
the entrepreneurs, to the educated.”
Several hundred thousand union workers have taken to the streets of
France this year. But President Emmanuel Macron has said he would not be
deterred from his cornerstone policies to tip the balance of power in
the working world toward employers and away from unions as part of his
effort to create more jobs.
Railway workers are the latest in his sights because they enjoy
privileges that are generous even by French standards, including the
right to retire as early as age 52 and a job for life that is virtually
guaranteed. Mr. Macron has proposed legislation to end the generous
terms for new employees. Most French workers cannot retire before age 62.
The National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, had approved
stripping the railworkers of their benefits in April and the Senate
approved a similar measure in June. The two chambers will vote on a
final version later this week.
In response to the efforts to change the law, the four railroad unions
staged the biggest strikes this spring among organized labor, slowing
train service across the country and holding protests in cities from
Paris to Marseilles and Nantes to Lyon.
I spent several days this spring going to the protests to try to gauge
the strength of the union cause, and by extension that of the unions’
The protest Mr. Bodiou attended in Paris on the last weekend in May
started, as do many union marches, at the Gare de l’Est, or Railway
Station of the East.
It is one of Paris’s most magnificent 19th-century train stations, a
soaring public monument of iron and glass; trains leave from here for
Strasbourg in eastern France and then head on to Germany. It was also
the station where, during World War I, soldiers piled onto the trains
that took them to the Western Front, where many were slaughtered.
Like so much in Paris, the railway station is a place where the past
echoes in the present, if you listen hard enough.
For the strikers, too, the past casts a long shadow, not least because
many had hoped that in the face of Mr. Macron’s defiance of nearly eight
decades of pro-union labor policies, people would clamor for a return to
the days when unions were seen as protectors of the ordinary worker.
Or at least to the heady days of May 1968 when laborers and students
joined hands and for a month brought the country to a standstill and won
This year, though, instead of joining them, nonunion members seem to be
barely willing to tolerate the inconvenience of the train workers strike.
Yet for those who have worked on the rails, repairing them, running the
signal system, taking tickets or driving the trains, Mr. Macron’s plan
is not just a loss of money or retirement benefits, but a demotion in
the hierarchy of workers. Railroad workers had lived in a special state
of grace and even had a special statute to legislate their terms of
work, and now that was being erased.
Several strikers said people did not understand the political
implications of the reforms being pushed by Mr. Macron, not just for the
railways but for everyone.
“If he can take this away from us, he can take benefits from everyone,”
said Christian Boumard, a union member who came from Nantes for an
earlier railway protest.
Despite the sense of shouting into the wind, at least this spring, the
protests still had a festive feel, a lingering hopefulness.
In May, friends greeted one another and people stopped along the route
for the traditional sandwich of Moroccan merguez sausage on a baguette,
which has become a staple of left-leaning protests in a sign of
solidarity with many immigrant workers who came from the Maghreb region
of northwestern Africa.
From the open back doors of union vans driving along with the crowd, a
union loyalist led the marchers in chants.
“The truncheon’s blow is free; the university also must be.”
“Macron is screwed; the railroad workers are in the street.” (It rhymes
“Public, private, solidarity, it is all together that we must struggle;
it is all together that we will win.”
Occasionally a smoke bomb would plume into the air with a bang, and here
and there people lit flares. But there were not as many as at a
union-only protest in March, when the anger was palpable and the flares
looked like a line of small fires scattered along the route as if to
jolt passers-by into paying attention.
In May the mood was lighter.
People set up stands selling T-shirts reviving some of the slogans from
1968. At another table was a collection of red-covered books — a color
associated with socialism and communism. There were the classics of Karl
Marx, “The Commune of Paris” and “Value, Price and Profit,” as well as
his landmark collaboration with Friedrich Engels, “The Communist
Manifesto,” and Lenin’s “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.”
Farther along was a table selling homemade drinks made with fruit and
rum from Martinique, a Caribbean island that remains part of France.
The leftists who marched ahead of the union men and women seemed to date
from an earlier era. They called for all workers to unite and sang the
“Internationale,” the communist anthem. Many brandished signs that said
Ecologists handed out green fliers urging people to save the Earth, and
pacifists — young affluent types and aging hippies — urged peace.
One older woman, wearing a long skirt that twirled as she spun around,
waved a red flag as she marched. She looked as if she were going to
dance all the way to the 1930s Spanish Civil War — one of the great
leftist causes of an earlier age. Except that war is over and today’s
equivalents are even more treacherous.
The May march was smaller than the ones earlier in the spring, and it
seemed that everyone knew the great era of the French street was
Prosper Hillairet, my French teacher, had stopped by the demonstration,
as so many people do when it’s a nice day. “I had the feeling,” he said,
“it was the last dance for them.”
Tanguy Garrel-Jaffrelot contributed reporting.
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