Monday, October 10, 2005

[dedicated to Felicity, Jeff, and Michael;
above, strikers in Romans, France]
On the day we'd planned for shoe shopping--Tuesday 4 October 2005--France went on strike. Schools closed, rail and bus service was interrupted, and many workplaces, private and public, closed in sympathy. In big cities like Paris and Marseilles, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, wearing costumes and face paints and carrying banners calling for the protection of jobs and benefits.

The small town of Romans in southeastern France, where we were headed, is an old tanning community situated on the banks of the Isere River. It's been a shoemaking town for centuries and has become a popular destination for city shoppers looking for good bargains on designer shoes. They head into town on their way back to Paris from Mediterranean and skiing vacations, or like us, take the high-speed TGV from Paris--a short, two-hour trip each way.

In a peculiar arrangement, the striking unions agreed not to completely disrupt bus and train service on the Ile de France, where Paris is (as they did a few days later in Belgium), or to target TGV traffic. So our train left on schedule. Once in Romans, we ate small ravioles for lunch, a specialty of the town, in a small restaurant, the structure of which dates back to the eleventh century. After lunch, we bought our shoes at the bargain-basement prices we'd come for.

On the way back to the car from our last stop, we heard a loud voice over a microphone shouting, "Down with Villepin [the prime minister]! We've had enough!" Romans was on strike. Marchers of all stripes walked slowly through the streets of town, halting traffic and bringing out shopkeepers and bystanders to watch. Old and young marched, men and women, even a poodle. In times of rising unemployment and other economic pressures, French workers are worried about the push toward increasing privatization, pension and health-care cuts, and other loosenings of the social contract between the French government and French citizens.

To many Americans traveling in France, the strike of 4 October was a pesky inconvenience. And, we tend to think of western Europeans as a coddled lot, with an economic and social safety net we can't even imagine. Yet, as I watched an entire town turn out to make a stand for their rights, I felt a shiver of admiration for the soul of a community, which instinctively recognizes that economic and social policy--though perhaps neutral in the abstract--bears ethical and moral weight. The French may lose their safety net, but they won't have done so without a public outcry.


PaulD said...

This travel account brings to my mind a personal concern -sort of like the concern about the coffee: do you see much use of motor scooters in Paris -and/or in the countryside? I'm hoping that you tell me there are scads of them. While I have my own burning desire for a motor scooter, I don't aspire to recreating Paris in Minneapolis, yet I believe that Paris -and much of Europe- have much to teach us. Dah!, Oh yes, that's why you're there, isn't it!

fresca said...

Oh, that PESKY connection between economic realities and on-the-ground human experience...
The other day I saw a pal of mine driving by--a very dear and sincere fellow who sends heartfelt e-mails of the sustainable ecological behavior and wise political action sort---he stopped his vehicle to say hello and looked rather abashed when I rudely expressed me amazement by saying "Is this your car???"
Yes, it was.
He was driving something that looked like a Darth-Vadermobile.