Striking off for France

With just a bit more than a week until we leave for four months in France on our canal barge HOOP DOET LEVEN, we’re closely following the forecasts. Not the weather forecasts. Not Météo France, the official weather agency. We’ve learned that Météo forecasts are absolutely always correct. Correct because every forecast includes at least a small percentage probability of rain. And of sun. And of clouds. And hot. And cold. And wind. There’s always going to be some wind. Once in a while maybe also a 5 percent chance of snow. And probably of locusts. Just in case. As a result of this all-inclusiveness the Météo men and women earn their daily “we told you so’s.” Mèteo France is always right, to some extent. Every single day in France, voilà donc, turns out to have clouds or sun. Rain or clear. Rarely locusts. Because of this our most reliable way of figuring out what the day’s weather will be is to look out the window and glance at the sky. And then confidently prepare for the exact opposite weather to arrive within 30 minutes.

No, it is not the weather forecasts we’ve been following as we prepare for our seventh summer in France. It is the predictions for les grèves. The strikes. 

The French are just so much better at strikes than Americans are. A French friend who is otherwise quite complementary about most things American – not including things American that sport orange facial tints – shook his head from side to side as he told me sadly that Americans just don’t know how to strike. And he had an explanation for this deficiency.

“French children learn how to strike in school,” he said. “They learn from their teachers. You know that every French school teacher is a socialist.”

There might be some truth to his explanation. We learned that in our former winter home of Auxonne, in Bourgogne, the elementary school children had gone on strike to protest a new chef who’d been transferred to their school. School lunches in France are fairly formal. The children sit at tables and are served in courses: an entree (which we’d called the appetizer), the main course, fruit, cheese and dessert. They have real silverware. Often cloth napkins. And two hours. It is absolutely forbidden to bring a sandwich in a brown bag from home. You want a sandwich, you go home for lunch.

lunch menu

Here’s a school lunch schedule for one week. See why elementary kids would strike if the new chef was not up to par.

The Auxonne kids were so disappointed with their new chef that they went on a food strike: they all brought sandwiches from home. And the new chef became the former chef. How civilized is that.

On a day trip to Paris we encountered a mass of people crowding in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the Paris city hall. It turned out they were teachers from all over France, marching in protest of President Francois Hollande’s proposal to switch schools from a four-day week – French kids get Wednesday’s off – to a five-day week. The militant socialist teachers were shouting and singing in protest about having to work on Wednesdays. Oh how the school kids must have loved having their teachers all in Paris, rather than in their schools, we thought. Then we realized. It was Wednesday. The teachers went on strike on a Wednesday so their students would not miss any school.

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Teachers came from all over France to march in front of the Paris Hotel de Ville when President Hollande proposed that schools be open on Wednesdays.

The French strike with thought and creativity. French strikes have a formal structure. The strike is announced well in advance so everybody on both sides can prepare and the public is not overly inconvenienced. Everybody is told how long the strike will last, where it will take place, what the strikers will do. Then the strikers show up and shout and sing and march and walk around with signs. The opposing party – government, employer, politicians – huffs and puffs about the end of French civilization. Then the strikers get what they want and everybody goes home. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a thank you note is expected afterwards.

We were introduced to the quirks of French strikes on our very first day traveling on a barge in France, even before we’d purchased HOOP DOET LEVEN, when we spent a week on NILAYA with Kevin Hartwell. We met up at Verdun on the Meuse River and headed for our first lock of the week-long trip to Nancy. Word had circulated on the bargee grapevine that employees at the VNF, the Voies Navigables de France, the waterways authority, were starting a strike that very day. Kevin tentatively motored NILAYA up to the first lock. And, voila, the lock gates opened for us and we chugged in. Kevin asked the eclusier – the lock tender – whether there was a strike that day. Certainement, he said. I think so. But my telephone isn’t working and they never called me to tell me not to work. On the assumption that the eclusiers at the next five locks we had to go through had working telephones, our friendly locktender hopped on board and rode along with us all day, opening and closing each lock. He stayed on board for lunch, too.

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This eclusier never got the word to walk off the job. Not only did he accompany us throughout the day to open locks idled by his striking coworkers, but he joined us for lunch onboard and then entertained us with his harmonica. He traded his VNF cap with Sandra for her WoodenBoat magazine hat. Just like the riot police, lock tenders feel free to have wine with lunch.

My favorite grève was when the dreaded CRS, the riot police, the very police force whose specific assignment is controlling public gatherings such as strikes, the guys who show up in kevlar body armor and plastic shields, brandishing batons, tear gas and water cannons, the CRS went on strike after the government announced it would end their free quarter-liter of wine at lunch every day. In response to this irrational policy announcement, Didier Mangione, national secretary of the police union, charged that the bosses were “trying to turn us into priests, but without the altar wine.” Of course, the government backed down, but asked the riot police to refrain from drinking in public.

Strikes are an important element of proud French culture. Just as the Inuit have a dozen words for snow, there are many permutations of grèves in French. Here are some examples:

  • Une grève générale – a strike followed by most unions around the same claims.
  • Une grève surprise – Strikers are supposed to give a notice before they strike. It’s not always the case though.
  • Une grève sauvage – a strike organized by the workers without the unions.
  • Une manifestation (or simply, a manif) – a demonstration or protest march, not necessarily associated with a labor union.
  • un défilé, un cortège – an organized walk for political purposes, a sort of moving manif.
  • And my favorite – Une opération escargot – a French expression describing a protest when trucks block the highways by driving very slowly on all the lanes.

Strikes are such a part of the landscape every summer that we pay careful attention to what is ahead of us, politically, just as we like to know when the next lock will appear and what the currents will be like in any upcoming rivers we plan to navigate. Fortunately, since unions are required to announce their strike schedules in advance, French newspapers regularly publish anticipated strike calendars. We’ll be traveling off the boat the first month or so after we arrive this year so we checked the rail and air strike schedules for the next few months, listed here:

strike calendar

We’re lucky the newspapers print the transportation strike schedule for the next few months. (AF is Air France).

How civilized. One more reason we just can’t wait to return to what we now consider to be our second home.