/ 18 October 2010

Striking while it’s hot

Striking While It's Hot

Departing from the traditional Right Bank demonstrations’ route, French trade unions opted for a long and energetic stroll through Paris’s Left Bank, from Montparnasse to Bastille.

The glorious weather might have conferred a benevolent ambience on the outing but every one of the estimated 200 000 demonstrators in Paris (and 3,5-million throughout France) meant business.

Either President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government backs down on its pension reform or the people’s discontent will grow.

The game of cat and mouse that those on the street and the French government have played in recent weeks is becoming increasingly tense.

Sarkozy has typically treated workers’ grievances with scorn. Having made a personal trademark of forcing his way through crises, he is taking a huge gamble.

The French street loves nothing more than to remind the powers that be that they are the true rulers.

The different processions, displaying red balloons, black flags and blue vuvuzelas, carried the usual humorous slogans, including “Let’s strike until we retire”.

The designer Jean-Paul Gaultier walked alongside the demonstrators, not quite in the street but looking on from the pavement with a big smile.

Was he sketching in his head a future protest chic?

To the strains of the Internationale spectators were discreetly passed leaflets calling for a muscular battle with the riot police. It read: “Bloquons l’économie.” (“Let’s block the economy.”)

It is ironic that this rapport de force should focus on pensions reform.

A recent poll suggests that 65% of French people accept the inevitability of raising of the retirement age from 60 — the lowest in Europe to 62. But the polls also show that 70% of the people support the strikers’ action.

A typical French contradiction? Not quite. Sarkozy has so antagonised the country since his election in May 20 07 that this reform offers an ideal pretext for political action.

Said Laura (28), a concert organiser: “I couldn’t care less about pensions. I’ll never get one anyway. I’m marching because I’ve had enough of all the things done in my name — the Roma expulsions, rejoining Nato, the debate on national identity, the arts and education cuts, the introduction of a profit culture in the public services. I’ve had enough.”

Sarkozy is closely monitoring the scale of protests by students and pupils. Each time French youths have taken to the streets, either in 19 86 or in 20 05, the government has had to climb down.

In May 19 68 they almost toppled the regime, with Charles de Gaulle secretly scurrying to check on the army’s loyalty in Baden Baden, then headquarters of the French army in Germany.

At issue is whether the slogan of “strike till you retire” appeals to France’s younger generation — and whether the street still calls the shots. I sincerely hope it does. —