Monday, April 11, 2011

Paris V: la grève

7 September

Around 1 pm on a pleasant, warm afternoon, as I walked up rue de Turenne through my old haunt surrounding my old gallery, I decided I wanted to walk up to Place de la République along the path I used to take daily after work to get home to continue my mildly melancholy march down memory lane.

You might say that was my first mistake.

Remember those 12,000 demonstrators I saw on Saturday when I arrived in Paris?  Those teeming crowds filling the streets by the Place de la Bastille?

They had nothing on the crowds I now found marching down the Boulevard du Temple.

See the Bastille column, way in the distance?
One of my first days at my internship in 2008, on my way to work I passed a small group of noisy demonstrators marching down the street, not far from the gallery.  They were loud enough that their chants were inescapable, even a few blocks away in the normally quiet gallery.  When Eric (my boss, the owner of the gallery) got to work, he said to me, "You want to see the real Paris?  Go look outside at the grève - I'm serious!"

Of course, that was in May, a month rife with strikes in memory of Mai 68, when millions of student strikers brought France to an economic standstill.  And this was September - who would have predicted tens upon tens of thousands of strikers taking to the streets?

I should have known, had I paid any attention.  Two days earlier, the front page of le Monde mentioned the strike set for the 7th of September.  I mean heck, I even took a picture of the headline - in appreciation of the strike I had seen the day before making the front page.  And even if that weren't enough, that very morning we'd been warned outside Sainte-Chapelle that September was a busy month for strikers: after taking all of August for vacation, we were told, the people are refreshed and ready to fight with the government.

But I was unaware of the impending masses along my path.  Depending upon who you asked, I had stumbled into a crowd of between 90,000 (according to the police) to 270,000 (according to the unions), all slowly - but loudly - milling their way through the streets.  Of course, I didn't know that until later; at the time, I just knew there were a lot - I mean a lot - of people, armed to the teeth with flags and stickers and balloons.

And it wasn't just Paris that was up in arms - there were strikes across the country.  That evening, had a map that showed how many people had joined the strike across the country.  All told, there were between 1.2-2.7 million demonstrators throughout France that day.

For the second time in a week, I had stumbled across the nation's top news story.  (And lest you think that the news was limited to France, I should mention that the next day it was front page news at, too.)  It was kind of exciting to be there, in the middle of the action, to have my own story of the events.

Of course, it was also a little intimidating to be there, too, in the middle of the chants and the crowd.

Just as I was nearing the Place de la République, I made my second mistake.  I noticed a restaurant I had heard recommended by a number of acquaintances, and I wanted to cut across the street to have a look at their menu.  Unfortunately, I never did get to see the menu - I couldn't get close enough to the building to look at the windows.  I was pushed instead to the other end of the patio in front of the restaurant, where the chairs had been piled to the side in front of the railing before the street.

In that moment, I was swept into the middle of the hot, teeming crowd, engulfed amid a sea of people, trying to push my way through the masses alongside everyone else.  I had thought if I could work my way to Place de la République, I could get out of the crowds.

That was my third mistake.

The entire enormous Place (if you've never seen it, it probably takes 5 minutes to walk from one end of the Place to the other, even without any encumbering crowds of strikers) was filled to the brim.  What percentage of the people there were really active in the movement, and what percentage were accidental onlookers swept into the masses like me, I couldn't say.  But those who were there to strike felt so strongly about their cause that they brought all their friends into the action.

The cause for the strike was the government's plan to raise the retirement age - from 60 all the way to 62.  (Never mind that neighboring Germany had just raised their own retirement age from 65 to 67; this was France, and working until age 62 was a clear violation of the people's liberté, égalité, and fraternité.)  As the world would hear in the coming weeks, this was only the first of many days of national striking about this issue.  The government would, however, go on to pass the reforms, despite the many loud dissenters.

Finally, after a sticky, uncomfortable forty minutes of being wedged in the crowd, personally bumping or elbowing or stepping on the feet of at least half of the 150,000 or so marchers, I was out and into the blissfully empty safety of rue de Faubourg du Temple.  The walk from my gallery to my apartment that took, on average, around 20 minutes, had taken over an hour.

I thought it likely that the République metro stop would be jam-packed, so I worked my way North to the Belleville stop to head back to the hotel and have a much-needed shower.  I hadn't considered that RATP, the public transportation in Paris and the surrounding countryside, would be on strike too.  Most lines of the metro were running fewer trains than usual, so upon getting into the train, I found myself just as packed into a crowd as I had been in the streets.  Though it wasn't the most pleasant of all metro trips I've taken, it did get me back to the hotel where I could get away from the mess for a few hours.

But the day wasn't over yet.  I had been in touch with Catherine, my old host mother, and she had invited me and my mom to dinner that evening at my old apartment with her, her husband and my old host father, Jacques, and the two students they were hosting at that time.  When we left the hotel a little after 6 pm, we found smoke rising in the distance, and the last stragglers of the strike marching around Place de la Nation.

Catherine and Jacques told us that the standard path for marchers is from République to Bastille to Nation, which might have been useful to know in advance as I tried to make my way through the city! 

It was wonderful to visit my old apartment.  We were clearly honored guests; dinner not only had wine and a cheese course featuring about eight cheeses (both reserved for, in my experience, special events), but also a pre-dinner apéritif, making it quite the evening.  Dinner was usual, as wonderful: we started with a salad, and then moved on to a main course of baked vegetables, as one of the current students is a vegetarian, and the other is allergic to eggs - quite limiting for a French cook!  Dessert was a perfect tarte aux mirabelles.  But it wasn't just the food that was good - the company really hit the spot, too.  It was great to hear how Catherine's children (and grandchildren!) are doing; to watch the friendly banter between Catherine and Jacques as they debated the date of some historical event (and then went to look it up); to have Jacques encourage me to take seconds, and then thirds, of all the food (as if I needed encouragement).  And it was great for me to get to show my mom where I had lived and introduce her to some of the people that had made my experience what it was in 2008.

At the end of the evening, I was sorry to leave and say goodbye again.  Though I suppose the French say it better with au revoir: "until I see you again."

Coming soon: rain and missed trains can't get our spirits down (or, at least, not for long) when there's shopping to be done and kirs to be drunk and macarons to be eaten!

A bientôt,

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