The World Is My White Board

Location: Bmore for the Moment, Maryland, United States

Friday, March 11, 2005

When In Rome

Being unemployed and having all kinds of time on my hands, I decided to take part in France’s National Strike day. The central argument of the demonstration was to protest against the government increasing the work week from 35 hours to 40. Yes that’s right, the French only work a 35 hour work week. About 5 years ago the French government decided to decrease the work week from 40 hours to 35 in an effort to decrease their rate of unemployment. The notion was to limit the work of the current employed so that businesses will have a void that they could only fill by hiring new workers from the unemployed. Oops, did anyone say temp workers or cheaper labor in South East Asia??? Please allow me to quote my favorite Miller Highlife commercial by saying, “Good Job Pierre”. Combined with the bureaucratic inability to fire employees, high overtime wages, and the 35 hour work week, I doubt this country will ever have a strong workforce. And…being the jerk that I am, I wanted to encourage their self inflicted pain by joining their strike.

All the major unions were out with their picket signs, flyers, stickers, and t-shirts. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the flyers. The strikers are only handing out flyers to those who are also striking, everyone else is working. For example, the transportation union is giving flyers to the trade, tourist, education, or telecom unions on why it’s tough to work under the 40 hour work week as a train conductor. And the train conductors will receive flyers from unions on why it’s such a pity to work more than 35 hours as a construction worker, teacher, or Eiffel Tower attendant. Every one’s complaining of how bad it was when they worked 40 hours and how everything will go to hell if 5 more hours are added. Essentially, it’s an enormous paper swap and bitch session. The best part the strike was that any group can participate. So anyone who wanted a day off just shows up to protest something. Other notable demonstrators included the post office, the communist party, and the high school students (protesting school... they do this at least once every two weeks). Demonstrations within the demonstration, the French…professional strikers.

To say the demonstration was huge is to say that Yao Ming is kind of tall. The strike was gargantuan, 500,000 + participants. I couldn’t even guess where the people train started or where it ended. I can tell you that many streets and boulevards were blocked off and that the streets and traffic circles in operation resembled parking lots. I jumped into the strike among the student and teacher section somewhere on Boulevard Diderot (going from the Seine to Nation). Eventually I outpaced the students and ended up in a group of large and angry looking men. I don’t know which union they represented but if I were to guess, they were dock workers/manual laborers by their build and surly look. In their section I received a few curious glances probably wondering what the hell is he doing here and why is he wearing work-out clothes (I went for a run just before participating). As we made our way towards Nation, cops were blocking off the left side of each intersection. As we got closer to Nation, I noticed the cops wearing more and more riot gear. First were the cops with the large shields, then at the next intersection the shields and large crowd control sticks, then at the next intersection shields and gas masks, and then cops with full body armor. At that point I remembered that I didn’t have health insurance and I decided to leave the crowd and stand behind the police lines. Then, as it often does in Paris, it started raining. After standing behind the cops for a while, waiting to see if the situation would get out of hand, I decided to head home to catch the highlights in a warm and safe apartment. So a good day was had by all except for those who had to get to work on the metro, bus, or train.