Having lived in France three times now, it’s easy to trick myself into thinking I’m some kind of an expert on everything French. But there are, and always will be, surprises.
After my semester studying abroad in Nantes, in the fall of 2010—a period during which everyone was constantly up in arms over a proposed reform to raise l’âge de la retraite (the age of retirement) from 60 to 62—I thought I knew a thing or two about mouvements sociaux, manifestations, and grèves. When I TAPIFed in Auch, I gained even more first-hand experience with French strikes. And in the first month of my French classes this year, I learned about every kind of grève imaginable as I committed to memory the specific vocabulary used to describe different strikes and social movements.
There’s le débrayage, where workers go on strike for only a few hours. There’s la grève du zèle, where workers do no more than the bare minimum outlined in their contracts, and follow all rules, regulations, and protocols with the utmost attention to minutia to cause a slow-down. There’s la grève tournante, where workers go on a relay-style strike, so there’s always one person working minimally and crippling effectiveness, but still working enough so that their salaries won’t take a hit. And there’s la grève illimitée, where workers stop working indefinitely until they decide to call off the strike, most often only once a series of demands or revendications have been met.
But on Thursday, January 29, I encountered a type of strike that wasn’t on the neat little list in my workbook: la grève surprise, where workers go on strike unexpectedly, without advance warning or notice.
While the French (at least from an American perspective) are notorious for going on strike, their grèves, more often than not, are planned and announced in advance. At best this allows people to make alternate arrangements; at worst, they’re at least prepared to expect inefficiency or a total shut-down.
This has always seemed weird to me. Before living in France, I thought of strikes as necessarily being unannounced and unexpected—and extreme. Something evoking the days of 19th-century American industry and Pinkerton guards. Something that so massively inconveniences people—by disrupting or shutting something down—that it becomes impossible to ignore the issues behind it. If you know about a strike in advance and can plan for it, doesn’t that diminish its power?
In France, la grève is so deeply ingrained in French culture that at times it seems like a part of everyday life. Those grèves that are announced in advance are disruptive, but still allow daily life to run its course. They’re like an irritating, persistent rash rather than an injury that would send you to the emergency room. But if the rash is irritating and persistent enough, eventually you still end up at the doctor—eventually something changes.
This is not the case with a grève surprise. A grève surprise is unexpected, debilitating, chaos-inducing. It makes its point immediately.
On Thursday, January 29, the entire RER A line went on strike following an incident of aggression toward a conductor.
The RER A line cuts across the right bank of Paris before splitting into five branches that serve the suburbs to the east and west of the city. It’s my (and lots of other people’s) most direct route into Paris.
I learned about the grève surprise about an hour before I was due to head into Paris for my French class. Luckily for me, there’s an alternate way to get from Nogent into the city: walking, driving or busing to the Château de Vincennes and from there hopping on line 1 of the métro. Unluckily for me, so many other people were in the same boat that the buses were packed to burst and the main roads to the Château were jammed with traffic.
I scrambled to get ready and ended up leaving half an hour earlier than usual. On my way to the bus stop, I met an older woman who was also trying to get to the metro. As we approached and saw the hoards of people waiting at the stop, she proposed that we faire du stop, or hitchhike. Always one for an adventure (and not wanting to miss my class because I’ve also always been a goody-goody), I agreed.
We advanced down the street a few blocks from the bus stop to improve our chances and she started walking up to cars stopped at stoplights and knocking on the drivers’ windows. The second person she asked (a woman driving an otherwise-empty five-seater car) agreed and we hopped in. It was smooth sailing for roughly two minutes until we caught up with the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
As we crept toward the Château, my travel companions talked about the incident that had provoked the day’s chaos, discussed the sense solidarity that had sprung from it (and had manifested in our ability to hitch a ride), and ranted about strikes in general.
And as the car traffic got thicker, so too did the foot traffic through the Bois de Vincennes. Anyone and everyone seemed to be participating in a manic, panicked parade to the metro, from mothers with children in tow to business men in suits and shiny leather shoes.
After driving roughly one and a half bus stops, it was clear that continuing on foot would be more efficient than staying in the cozy comfort of the all-but-stopped car. (Honestly, it probably would have been more efficient to go by foot from the outset.) The older woman and I got out, said goodbye and bon courage to the driver and to each other, and joined the fray.
Though it took almost twice as long as usual, I made it to class and was only 15 minutes late. We had a grammar quiz, I sang a Cat Stevens song in front of the class, and daily life in Paris, while crippled, continued.