What's happening? Massive strikes, protests, and attempts to hi-jack the country's ability to function. That may change very soon, and I'll get to that in a minute, because it's kind of funny.
What's everyone so worked up about? The government is in the process of raising retirement age from 60 to 62, with full benefits changing from 65 to 67. People aren't happy about that. Clearly they had plans for those two years. Yes, France is currently the country with statistically the longest retirement periods in the world (retirement age and longevity of life factored in). Yes, life expectancy is growing, as is cost of living; pension contributions not so much. So anyhow, the bill was pushed by the president, has passed through the House and will be voted on by the Senate (today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week). Yes, Sarkozy was elected president on a platform of reform and change, but yes he is being protested for making reforms and changes. Yes, just about every other country in Europe has recently raised their retirement age.
So France's answer: 3.5 million people took to the streets (liberal number, depends on which news outlet you believe). They went on strike and they stage protests. The general idea is go on strike and shut down the country. Then they got creative and tried to essentially to force non-strikers into striking by making them unable to get to work. It's been most effective in a few specific areas: At first, public transit workers went on strike (typical) and trains and buses became few. Much later, truckers staged "go-slow" protests on the autoroutes, covering all the lanes and driving real slow. Perhaps most effective, oil refineries have gone on strike, port workers in Marseille have gone on strike, and so no new gas is being produced in country and imported gas sits in boats out in the sea (which for some reason makes me wonder if they have any ponies on the boats, and then I start singing along with Lyle Lovett in my head). Thus a gas shortage. I also hear that trash workers have been on strike in Marseille and there are now piles of trash 7 feet high all over the city, and that just stinks.
Back in Paris, we're out of gas. The government says they are dipping into their reserves and have enough, but I haven't seen any being passed out yet. When I first heard of the rush to the gas pumps I sat back and waited. No reason to panic, no reason to go wait in line. But 4 days later and with some expected need of our vehicle upcoming, I decided to get some gas today. Found a website that tells what stations have gas, so we looked up the nearest to us and off I went. I found a line about a half a mile long down the street, and I kept driving. Had some other errands to do, and along the way passed about 9 other gas stations, all closed and empty, no gas. Eventually I made it back and waited in line. About an hour later I reached the pump and discovered that they only had diesel left. Thankfully my car takes diesel. The guy in front of me wasn't so lucky. Now I'm set for at least another week.
There's limited violence along with these protests, but it's pretty scattered and doesn't seem to be escalating. As we can understand, the violence starts when students get involved. We've not really seen it (some evidence of broken glass, we see a little bit stronger police presence, we hear of isolated incidents on the news). It boggles our mind that over 300 high schools have closed because the students are on strike. Students on strike? To an American that's a foreign concept.
Now here's why we're hopeful that things will calm down and here's what we think is funny. Next week is vacation week. Schools, businesses, etc go on vacation. There's a holiday and it's one of those weeks (like spring break in the US, but for more of the nation) where everyone goes on vacation. Here, the news people say that protests will drop in numbers because of the vacation. It would seem to me that if you're passionate about something, an already scheduled vacation is the perfect time to go march in the streets. But no, apparently here a vacation means that you can't really go on strike, because you wouldn't actually be ditching work, and what message would that send? And besides, we need our vacations!
So we'll see what happens next week...
-my favorite quote from these, said Hugh Schofield of the BBC, "A kind of delirium has set in, propelling teenagers onto the streets in a re-enactment of an imagined revolution."
I really don't think the youth even know what they're protesting by burning trash cans and cars and throwing rocks at police.