The French will set us free…maybe

PARIS, JAN. 29 –  Streeerike! The French are at it again. Come on, you didn’t think the folks who treated a nasty monarchic allergy with a guillotine blade would take the endless stream of bad economic news sitting down, did you? On jeudi noir, Black Thursday, as the press has pre-labeled January 29, strikes will cripple 77 of 137 public transportation networks (mostly rail), hobble the Paris métro and commuter rail links, and reduce your odds of flying into or out of French airports by about 70 percent.
Of course, with the transportation grid essentially paralyzed, most French workers who don’t have cars will stay at home, meaning the already suffering private sector will take yet another hit. If the past is any guide, those with cars will shun the roads for fear of getting stuck in traffic. Ridesharing, though advised by the National Roadway Information Center (yes, there is one), probably won’t have much of an impact. Upwards of two million people will take to the streets of cities (not just Paris), despite the cold.  And that’s not all: teachers will go on strike. Civil servants will not be serving much of anything. Bank workers, dock workers, public television workers (most TV is government-subsidized in France)…strike city. Post office? Please. Want to buy an Edith Piaf remix at the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees? Good day for  iTunes. Feeling under the weather? You might not want to check into a French hospital when the doctors are on strike. Want to read all about it? Well, tough truffles, because striking print workers on Thursday means very few newspapers will get out Friday. Read it on the Beast or be sorry later.
Yes, it appears that on this Thursday like so many Black Thursdays and Tuesdays before it in the French nation, productivity will take a backseat to the collective grinding of axes. Why? Essentially, because France’s top trade unions – the CGT, CFDT, CGC, FO and many other crisply acronymed groups —  are demanding that the government take just a little better care of both salaried and unemployed workers who are “victims” of the global financial crisis. They want an end to layoffs and job protection for what jobs there are left. They want more yang for their euro. And they don’t want their newish president, Nicholas Sarkozy, to throw money at banks and big business. Forget for a moment that they’ll get no succor from “Sarko,” whose governing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party is how you spell “Republican” in French. Forget how trade union wrath rarely translates into material gain for French workers. People here are angry, and they’re unapologetic about it.
France is anything but uncomplicated and not everyone is crazy about the strikes. Yves Thréard, a blogger for the right-of-center newspaper Le Figaro, decries what he terms the “I oppose, therefore I am” mentality of the trade unionists and a social tradition of public demonstrations he sees as “woefully last century.” But if most French bristle along with him at the headaches and inconvenience they will undoubtedly cause, there’s also sympathy for the social action. Lots of it. The most recent polls show 69 percent of the French in support of these strikes.
The French are used to a certain kind of lifestyle and they are increasingly fed up with an economy that, pretty much since the late 1980s, has seen a steady erosion of purchasing power and concentration of wealth into the hands of a gilded corporate few. But according to Forbes there are two, maybe three French billionaires, and even though one is married to Salma Hayek, this is nothing on the order of the fat cats prowling our shores. And if Jacques Frenchman takes to the streets simply to voice discontent with the bleak status quo, imagine what he’d get up to if he found out French taxpayers were bankrolling gross private sector negligence à la TARP, and associated CRAP. They’d be storming the Bastille all over again – an inspiration to us all, again.
Sure,  strikes are a pain. They make travel hell for Parisian and tourist alike. They’re oddly quaint, even. But we dare not damn them, for they are nothing if not the noisy expressions of a proud culture of complaint, and I love a good complaint: after all, it’s just the crinkly promise of improvement. It’s American apathy to the slithery ways of the Bernie Madoffs, John Thains and George Bushes that is, frankly, revolting. We’ve liberated France before, now maybe it’s their turn to free us from our own slick brand of oppression. But we can’t expect them to do all the work. Perhaps this is how Paris is meant to inspire a new generation of Americans: Aux armes, citizens!

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