Working as an English language assistant in France, I expected a lot of things; fresh bread every day, suffocating bureaucracy, and the opinion that chicken is a food without meat in. All of these prejudices have been confirmed, but something is happening around me which I hadn’t foreseen: one of the biggest political movements in recent French history. The government’s reforms of the pension system have sparked four weeks of protest, disruption and social unrest. Airports are closed, trams are erratic, rubbish isn’t being collected, and people are burning tyres in the street. The French words for ‘strike’ (la grève) and ‘massive angry banner-waving protest’ (manifestation) have become more important to my vocabulary than such everyday phrases as ‘baguette’, ‘chocolat chaud’ and ‘surely you can’t take that dog into a restaurant.’
In short, the grève is everywhere; but most noticeably and surprisingly for me, it’s interfering with the education system in ways which in English culture would be unimaginable. I have no formal grounding in politics, economics, or French history, but I know what an empty classroom looks like: so if you’ll indulge my factual errors, this is a personal view of what’s going on.
I work in two schools, Lycée Clemenceau and Lycée Gabriel Guist’hau, both of which are known as high-quality, respected, bourgeois establishments. If I mention the first by name, most people have heard of it, and tell me I’m very lucky to be working there. Arriving to teach at 7:50 one morning two weeks ago, the gates were blocked by a group of 16-17 year old students sitting on a row of plastic wheelie bins, behind a makeshift metal fence. I asked them how I was possibly supposed to get in, and got sent round to a larger side entrance, where a huge crowd of students were gathered, included many of the class I was supposed to teach who evidently would not be there. There were large banners painted with slogans, more metal fencing, and people checking cards at the door to make sure only students doing pre-university preparatory classes could enter (and after some negotiation, me).
Getting round to the main office, I asked for the room key: N006. The man at the desk gave me the familiar look of blank incomprehension.
‘The key for what?’
He scrunches his face up.
‘The key to the piano?’
He thinks I’m a student.
‘No. The door. I’m an assistant. I have a class to teach.’
‘You want the key to the piano?’
He looks at a list for a long time, then finds the door key. I wonder how many more people he gets asking for the key to the piano than the door key. I get to the room. There is no piano. There is no piano in the room.
When I leave, the blockade is still there, by now playing incredibly loud American rap music. Cars are queuing up in the street, including one of the teachers I work with, facing a sign reading ‘Honk if you’re against reform’. One of my students is wearing a hi-vis jacket, controlling traffic around the roadblock.
These aren’t difficult kids. This isn’t the banlieue. My school doesn’t have a high percentage of children from working-class backgrounds, or very low incomes, or the socially marginalised. But they are French, and they are angry, and on a day when they could have effectively skipped school and slept most of them were waiting outside the gates by 8am, when it was still dark outside, to stop their fellow students entering and make a stand about retirement. Why?
The facts of the strikes: Sarkozy wants retirement to start at 62, not 60 – the current level since the 80s government of François Mitterand, and a cherished French freedom. He is also proposing a full state pension beginning at 67, not 65, and for those who claim it to have racked up 41.5 years in employment. This figure delays the pension for graduates, the long-term unemployment, and parents who take time off to raise children, which an adjustment to the bill is intended to address. The reasoning behind these changes is that life expectancy is increasing, the French already have more of their population in retirement than any other nation, and as part of general belt-tightening they can’t afford to support this many over-60s out of work. It’s Sarkozy’s flagship measure, and seems to be a flashpoint for a referendum on his highly unpopular government – one protest sticker says ‘Carla, Sarko’s fucking us too’. He is particularly disliked among the young.
The government is afraid of young people being injured or targeted as a result of police crowd control – some youths in Paris have already been tear-gassed, and it’s the kind of scandal the government is scared to bring on itself, knowing it will only exacerbate tensions.
But apparently this is simply the outlet, the pressure-valve, for the general ill feeling about Sarkozy which many French people have been building up. Someone describes him as a “small frustrated lawyer.” The pensions debacle seems to have crystallised a general resentment over Sarkozy’s vision for France; he also invited protests over his draconian stance on immigration and a DNA database.
Yet these students are not just expressing groundless anti-establishment sentiment; there is also an aspect of self-interest. These 16 year olds are striking, partly because of a larger cultural concept of ‘solidarité’ (supporting other strikers), but partly because it could directly affect them. Unlike in England, where people are quick to cry ‘age discrimination’, the French seem uneasy with the idea of the over-60s working at all. The main reason seems to be that the more jobs that continue to be taken up by older workers, the fewer there will be available for the young. Compared to the UK France has a big problem with youth unemployment, or as I like to call it, ‘chômage frais’. So my students are also motivated by some degree of self-interest; many of them feel that if older people can, or are forced to, keep their jobs longer, it will stop them finding work themselves.
Yesterday my classes were back at school – no blockades or burning tyres – and the rubbish has been collected. But a manifestation still blocked an entire tram line, there are still signs saying ‘Grandpa, what was retirement?’, and no one has a kind word for Nicholas Sarkozy. It’s still hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but the French don’t give up easily. It remains to be seen how long they will dig in their heels.