Friday, January 21, 2005

Strike season in France

The days are lengthening, the sun rises a little farther north, and election day is approaching. That's right everyone: it's strike season in France.

The national railway company (la Société National de Chemins de Fer, commonly known as SNCF) was the first to go at the beginning of the week. What surprised me about this strike was that it was clearly announced about five days in advance, saying how long it would last and exactly which lines wouldn't be running, etc. It seemed rather nice of them to do that so that people could plan around being inconvenienced, but it seemed to me like that would diminish the impact of their strike. Then I realized it was quite to the contrary. That they announced it ahead of time meant average people wouldn't be so inconvenienced or stranded and would be more likely on their side. Also, since they announced it five days in advance, it was on the nightly news every night giving them publicity during the time that they were still going to work and still getting paid, so they got more bang for their buck.

The national postal service (La Poste) went next a couple days ago with about 30 percent of service being shut off. This was also announced a few days in advance, but illuminated a different aspect of French politics for me. After the first day of the strike, a minister announced that, seeing how many people followed the strike, they would develop a plan to layoff less people, which was, in effect, the reason for the strike. You see, French labor unions start with a strike and then go to the negotiating table. They feel that in order to have bargaining power to demand what they want, they must strongly express their grievances beforehand in numbers. I soon realized that strikes were as dear to the French vision of a democratic process as voting. Which is why, of course, they are so frequent. 

Of course, there is also the kind of strike that comes up suddenly when negotiations break down. Like this morning, when I showed up for work at the newspaper (Le Progrès) and discovered that most of the reporters and editing staff were on strike. 
They had just announced it just that morning, and I happened to be so lucky to be wandering around wondering where everyone was on the floor where the union had their meeting. A group of about thirty journalists all stood and sat around the low desks and Apple computers listening to the union captain describe the reasons for his "incertitude and worry."
In an effort to become more competitive, the administrative staff had announced the departure of 52 of the 307 journalists employed at this local and regional paper. We only comprise about 13 or 14 percent of this company's assets, he said; we are no longer important to this administration.
The fact that 52 people were leaving had been known for many months. The call to the strike was made after the administration failed to give exact specifications of which people would be doing which jobs, meaning that the journalists not only didn't know their future role but had no idea whom they would be working with and in which capacity. Most were worried about the possibility of Le Progrès turning into a "correspondent" paper, meaning they would get rid of outlying field offices in the suburbs of Lyon. "That's just not real journalism," said one of the reporters.

It was beautiful. At first, my American sensiblities said: "What the hell? It's called downsizing, folks, it's good for the overall economy, just go back to work." But after I listened to the meeting I realized how much more important it was for them to stop this decent into "wire-journalism" then getting out the next day's paper. They were standing up for their position in the world. Here were people actually doing something about what everyone complains about in the media. They were standing together against the profit-minded New World wave of soundbites, hurried journalists using press releases as excuses for copy and news in outlying suburbs going unreported. 
It was, as one of them put it, "expressing our right to strike in view of injustices."

*************

Now I feel it's time for a "bilan" (a French word I've yet to find a satisfactory translation for, meaning something like 'summary-review' but in an orderly point-by-point fashion).

I am still living in my apartment (yay for no more moving!) and it's still a rather nice place to live. Still trying to figure out how long it takes to get places from here, but the realization that there is a bus line 20 meters from my apartment building that goes directly to my university has certainly helped.

This semester is nearly over and I feel I did fairly well in classes. On the final I didn't study for (it's hard to study for tests at this point because any aspect of the language is fair game for questions), I got the highest grade in the class: a 34.5 out of 40. This is not a grade I would be particularly proud of in an American college class, as it would mean a middle "B". However, the French grade on a 20-point system with 16 being an "A" and 10 being a "D." Dividing by 2, I got a 17.25. Not really sure how that happened. In any case it means I'll be skipping level 5 and going on to level 6 next term. Woo-hoo!

Other than that, I'm getting ready for a three-week vacation. My boyfriend and I are planning a week tour through Geneva and Barcelona. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do for the other two weeks as I don't exactly feel like I need a rest as I was just on vacation three weeks ago. Maybe I'll max out some credit cards and go travelin' on my own... Woo-hoo!

At the paper, I was moved up a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I do mean that literally and not figuratively. I used to watch people do layout on the third floor and now I'm watching people do layout on the fifth floor. Even with the strike, my superiors still haven't figured out I might be a nice source of free, non-unionized labor... Oh well.
At the end of February I'll move to LyonPlus, a supplemental paper given out on the metros, which I'm hopeful means that I'll actually be doing something that will be published. Probably big, important news articles distilled into snappy, fluffy, bite-sized pieces. Woo-hoo!

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