Anyone who visits France or who spends time here regularly has faced strikes. It’s a fact of French life: at one point or another, your train will be cancelled or your flight delayed or your museum closed because a union has called a work stoppage of some sort.
The most recent strike, which began December 5, is slowly winding down after many weeks. The strikers – mainly railway workers – have been protesting proposed changes to the retirement system. What’s surprising isn’t the protests. People are uneasy that the government wants to replace the current system of 42 separate pension plans. These are confusing and they can differ according to profession, with railway workers getting a particularly generous retirement, which can include free bus and rail transportation for life and the possibility of retiring in one’s 50s. The different plans are considered inequitable. That’s a given. But what’s surprising is that so many people of different professions (including lawyers and ballet dancers) have protested while not a single one of them has seen any details of the proposed changes. The details will not be made public until later in the month. So, people are objecting to the idea of change rather than what the change may actually be.
This is very French. The French love to theorize and speculate – philosophy is an essential part of French high school education – and the idea of something can be more powerful than the reality. In fact, some people accept a dubious reality because the idea behind it is so powerful, such as the badly aging Pompidou Center. Sure, the idea of making the outside of a museum look like the inside of a factory probably seemed cool in the 1970s. But over four decades later, the museum, rather than gleaming as Europe’s greatest repository of modern art, resembles a dirty abandoned mill that hasn’t yet been reclaimed and restored by a new generation that has come to its senses. Still, as a French friend of mine said when I mentioned how unattractive and uninviting the Pompidou was, “But it is such a very good idea for a museum.”
For many French, pension reform is a very, very bad idea. It doesn’t matter, actually, that no details of the plan have been revealed. The plan, whatever it is, can only be detrimental to a hard-fought French way of life. And yes, the protests, as many have noted, are decidedly class-driven. As elsewhere, people in France are fed up with brazen income inequality. Many young and not-so-young French have seen the financial and social advancement that benefitted their parents fade away in the face of dehumanizing globalization. Many others feel hopeless at the continuing erosion of services outside big cities, such as weaker public transportation or less-available medical care.
I understand this. What’s a little harder to understand is why the French consider President Emmanuel Macron to be the cause of all current unhappiness. The abiding hatred that many French have for him is puzzling to me. It’s true that Macron can seem lofty and distant, blithely professorial rather than warmly collegial, more at home reciting facts than connecting with people – a particular know-it-all French trait that the French tolerate in each other or when talking to foreigners but don’t seem to like in their elected officials. But have the French seen what’s been going on overseas? They envision a more restricted retirement funding diminishing their future way of life, while an American wonders why they’re always so upset, given that they already have excellent free healthcare, free education and five weeks of annual vacation guaranteed by law, among other things most Americans can only dream of.
It’s true that Macron tends to ignore quotidian concerns as he addresses larger issues – such as how the government will pay for the retirement of future generations given how expensive the various pension plans are. But he doesn’t speak, at least in the minds of many French, to what’s going on for people in how they go about their days: having enough money to live on now and when they’re older. The French are theoretical, but even their tolerance for abstract ideas has its limits when it comes to paying the monthly bills.
The strikes have been inconvenient for many, including me, but I am nevertheless impressed by this fervent French commitment to protest. It’s true that Parisians have naturally grown tired of the strike after a month and a half, but they understand the importance of expressing oneself this way. I sometimes value myself so little that I see something noble in this innate French sense of self-worth. It says something about how much the French think of themselves that people will take to the streets to assert their own value even before they’re aware of what exactly will hurt them.