Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Strike Two

November is the season for strikes in France this year. The rail workers went out last night, and university students have been striking for a couple of days and have had some violent clashes with the police. On November 20, the fonctionnaires, or government workers, are walking out. France has a strong labor movement, in part because they follow through on their promise to strike.

The issues are varied, but they all seem to center around the uncertain relationship between the people and their new president, Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is a reformer with a sometimes brash style. He's been dubbed "the American" becuase many of his policies seem to be more in the US model than in the more traditional French way of doing business. He argues that the old way of working won't work any more and that things have to change. For instance, in the case of railway workers, they have a special arrangement that allows them to retire a few years earlier than the standard age of 55. Sarkozy argues that this inequality in the system costs the whole social security structure and must be brought into line with what other businesses do. But the rail workers are not happy about it, countering that they have been given one set of rules for years and that now the goalposts are moving.

Most of the population is actually on Sarkozy's side with polls showing some 55% of French people in favor of the reform. But the other 45% who agree with the strikers is still a sizable minority. France is divided over how to move into the 21st century, but in the meantime no one is going anywhere -- at least not on the trains.

I'm hoping that this will be resolved by the time Ellen and I are scheduled to leave for Switzerland next week. Most people I've talked to here seem to think it will be over in a few days. But every once in a while, someone mentions 1995, the last time the government tried to reform the special retirement regime for rail workers. Apparently, they were out for weeks. But a lot has changed since then, and I don't think anyone can predict how this will play out.

The image is of people trying to cram onto one of the few trains that did run, courtesy of France 3 (

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