Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Voting in the Streets

People outside France -- and even some French -- shake their heads every time a general strike is announced. It seems it takes very little for malcontents to take to the streets in what is often called the French national pastime. 

At issue this time is the proposed change in the retirement age from 60 to 62. Americans just smirk and mutter something like, "Those lazy French! A 35-hour work week isn't enough?" while millions of French are up in arms, with unions leading the way in the strikes. Strikes are not a new phenomenon in France; as far back as the French Revolution, we see that the French way of expressing dissent is to take to the streets.

Whatever the work ethic of the French, it's more a matter of what one is used to. Chances are, most of us, if used to retirement benefits at age 60, would not be happy when they were taken away. Such austerity measures are being contested all over Europe, as the Old Continent feels the pain of years of social benefits, many of which are being debated in the US. There are those who say, "As Europe goes, so goes the US;" it will be interesting to watch in the next few years whether social benefits in the US are extended, only to have to be withdrawn later.

There was just such a strike while we were there this past summer with the World to the Wise Cultural Tour. Surprisingly, we were still able to get around Paris on public transportation. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that traffic flows much more smoothly when there is a strike. Perhaps there are more effective means of protest; in the meantime, we can expect many more fists being shaken on the Champs Elysées.