As I’m typing here at 8:30 am Friday in Paris from a tiny guest appartement, I can hear a constant backdrop of sirens that carried on through the entire night.
Imagine my chagrin when French citizens and union workers planned a countrywide strike starting Thursday—the very day my flight was scheduled to land at Charles De Gaulle airport! They are righteously furious that President Emmanuel Macron used a rare procedure to unilaterally change the retirement age from 62 to 64. (I say rightly because the move was non-democratic, and was just a fiat from above like a sweeping Joe Biden executive order.)
Mon dieu; encroyable! Talk about bad timing.
But it was too late to change plans—there was no backing out, at least not without losing all or most of the money already paid. I checked around with everyone I knew who might have insight, and while they said I should be fine—they did say it could get interesting.
I landed early on Thursday after 19 hours of travel from Los Angeles (choosing a layover in Philly was a money saver, but a little rough on the old body). Luckily someone had advised me to prebook a taxi because trains would be impacted by the strike.
Watching the news now, I thank that person because indeed strikers did later close off access to parts of the airport and make lives miserable for train travelers as well. Many stranded passengers were forced to walk out of the airport with their bags in tow. Didn’t look like fun.
On the long drive from De Gaulle, things seemed normal for any big city—crazy traffic, lots of honking, and construction slowing things down all over the place. One thing that stuck out to me was the unbelievable amount of motorcycles zipping in and out of traffic, often within millimeters of other cars, the drivers absolutely fearless. Of course, we have motorcycles in Los Angeles, but nothing like this insanity.
It wasn’t till we started to get into the city proper that things began to change. Sirens, sirens, everywhere. That specifically French siren—a little higher-pitched than most American ones, a little more singsongy. And then you started to notice it—the ubiquitous police vehicles: marked and unmarked cars with temporary sirens stuck on top, vans, motorcycles, and more.
Eventually, I checked into the little hotel (up four treacherous flights of stairs so narrow they had to be taken sideways—not all regulations are bad, people!), and decided to check out the lay of the land. Everything seemed normal—cute little patisserie shops every eight feet, narrow streets, effortlessly stylish Parisians. But then I got to a public square and the change was startling. I counted at least 14 sinister-looking gendarmerie vans, and hundreds upon hundreds of policemen and women roaming around, heavily armed. It was still early in the day, and they were relaxed and hanging out in groups, but they knew what was coming.
It was already a stunning display of force, which got a lot larger throughout the afternoon and evening.
Macron has unleashed the police in Paris tonight pic.twitter.com/FDZajpco0p
— Citizen Free Press (@CitizenFreePres) March 19, 2023
I spoke to a group of them, and while the officer who responded wasn’t unfriendly, he was certainly wary, and his finger hovered next to the trigger of his long weapon the entire conversation. Through my fractured French and his halting English, we managed to establish, “you should be all right—as long as you don’t go that way.”
After a rest, I set out for dinner, and although I’m not an expert on all things Parisian, I do know one thing—you can pick a restaurant at random and your chances of the food being excellent are high. I was enjoying the meal despite the constant sirens and police vehicles rushing by… But then raucous laughter erupted from a group sitting at one of the outdoor tables. Turns out someone on the street was trying to set one of the ubiquitous garbage piles afire, and had failed badly. (The piles of stinking garbage are everywhere because striking workers are refusing to pick it up.)
The show wasn’t over, however, as soon a new crowd showed up and made sure the fire was relit, and this time it took. Nobody in the restaurant was in the slightest bit concerned, and none stopped their meals when crowds of demonstrators started marching down the street, chanting and hollering. In fact, it all seemed quite normal. Just another night in Paris; turns out it’s quite common:
The French really did the “this is fine” meme. pic.twitter.com/iIIXFnju2S
— Paweł Wargan (@pawelwargan) March 21, 2023
There were places in the city where things grew more violent, and dangerous clashes between protesters and the gendarmerie occurred. But here in the 3rd arrondissement, it almost seemed like a street party, with both participants and onlookers enjoying themselves thoroughly. It didn’t have the sinister, terrifying feel of so many riots we witnessed here in the United States during the uprisings in the summer of 2020. While protesters did cause some damage in other parts of the city, the ones here at least were content with yelling at police and lighting up trash heaps. They were not interested in destroying shops and restaurants or attacking bystanders. I’m not saying I’m supportive; I’m just saying I never felt threatened. One main difference seems to be that the protests here are against The State, whereas the ones in the U.S. got out of control when the anger got directed at people and businesses.
I’m not going to get deep into the politics of the strike in this article, other than to say that the French view on work is that they want to eat their cake and have it too—in other words, they want generous benefits but they also want early retirement ages, long vacations, and other perks that make the pension funds a ticking time bomb.
I find it ironic that I left Los Angeles Wednesday—where the SEIU and the teachers’ union have shut down LA schools for three days because they want a thirty percent pay raise. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, perhaps.
It’s still morning here in the City of Light, one thing is certain. The French are both passionate and blasé, but never boring.