Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Paris Update on February 10, 2016, but seems even more pertinent today after the latest round of transit strikes.
All right, all you youngsters out there, gather ’round and listen: when I was your age, I had to walk five miles through the snow to get home from work. This actually happened, although I should probably add that I only had to do it once. When there was a transit strike in Paris.
The French do not deserve their clichéd reputation for being arrogant and unfriendly (as explained in a previous C’est Ironique), but they do deserve their clichéd reputation for going on strike at the drop of a hat. Or a cap. Or a hairpin. Or, I sometimes think, a hair.
In my 3.33 decades in France I have seen strikes by many, many professional groups, including but not limited to airline pilots, customs inspectors, garbage collectors, prison guards, armored-car drivers, truck drivers, highway toll collectors, students, teachers, student teachers, healthcare workers and policemen. To my knowledge, sick people and criminals have never gone on strike here, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
In 1997 (this is true), there was even a strike by unemployed people. I suppose I should put “strike” in quotes: they occupied the national employment agency to register their displeasure about the way things were going.
In fact, things went pretty well, because they were all immediately hired as temporary security guards and ordered to clear themselves out of the building, thus creating jobs. (Okay, that part isn’t true.)
But in Paris the worst strikes are the transit strikes, which are so frequent and so consumingly exasperating for so many people that the authorities have even come up with a euphemism for them. When there’s a Métro strike, for example, the RATP (Paris transit company) doesn’t announce a grève (strike) but rather a mouvement sociale.
It literally means “labor movement,” but the use of sociale makes it sound as though the network has shut down, leaving tens of thousands of people with no way to get to their jobs, homes, dealers, dialysis appointments, Mafia induction ceremonies, etc., because the transit workers have all been invited to a picnic.
There seems to be something about proximity to long, thin pieces of metal that makes French people very touchy and peevish. The only organization whose workers strike as often as the RATP, the local rail company, is the SNCF, the long-distance rail company.
Hardly a year goes by without at least one Métro and/or train strike, and sometimes they go on for days — which, if you’re a commuter, seem like weeks. And on rare occasions they even go on for weeks — which, if you’re a commuter, seem like your first marriage.
I remember once getting stuck in a wildcat Métro strike called with no warning. (This is also true.) Well over half of the drivers and other RATP staff walked out one morning and refused to work for a whole day because a fellow employee had been assaulted on his way to work.
Not assaulted on the job, or even inside the Métro — just mugged somewhere in Paris. I’m sorry the guy was attacked, but if this were considered cause for a general walkout in every business sector, about a third of the country’s professional activities would be shut down on any given day.
The economy would be so slow that unemployment would rise even higher, and more people would turn to crime, committing more attacks on more commuters who are walking to work more often because there are more Métro strikes to protest more muggings, etc., etc.
To its credit, the RATP is very good about keeping its customers informed whenever there’s a Métro strike of the non-wildcat (housebroken puppy?) kind. Because not every union participates in every “social movement,” most strikes are only partial, and the info screens in the Métro announce the estimated wait time between trains.
For a major strike with most of the unions’ support, it can be 15, 20 or even 40 minutes, which means four things:
1) No matter where you’re going, it’s probably faster to walk.
2) Most people don’t realize this, so…
3) When a train finally does come it will be more crowded than the Black Hole of Calcutta, but only slightly less pleasant. Which means that…
4) The people getting off will be afraid that they won’t be able to get off and the people getting on will be afraid that they won’t be able to get on, so they will all smash into each other like protons in the Large Hadron Collider.
This is why American football has never caught on in France: two tightly packed rows of adrenaline-charged brutes crash together as hard as they can and, most of the time, no one gets to their goal. It just reminds us of a Métro strike.
Nonetheless, there is one group of Parisians who relish a mass transit strike, who savor every minute of it, who look forward to the next one and look back on past strikes with wistful nostalgia.
I refer, of course, to frottage fetishists. Oh, and taxi drivers.
With hundreds of thousands of people stranded throughout Paris, all cabs are guaranteed to be rushed by a frantic mob of eager, high-tipping customers the second they drop anyone off anywhere.
And then they’re guaranteed to take two or three times as long as normal to get wherever they’re going, because the traffic jams, always terrible in Paris, are like glaciers from hell, if such a thing is possible, when the Métro isn’t running.
Still, for Parisian taxi drivers this is the stuff that fond memories are made of. And they can use a couple of fond memories, because these days they are not a happy bunch.
Hard as it may be for some foreign visitors to believe, Parisian cab drivers are even surlier than ever due to a sharp drop in their number of fares, which in turn is due to a sharp rise in the use of Uber and similar car services (a topic discussed in another previous C’est Ironique).
The regular taxis are furious with Uber, and for one very good reason: they don’t know if it’s supposed to be pronounced “yoo-ber” or “oo-ber.”
Well, that and also because Uber and its imitators, called “VTCs” in France, offer a cheaper, more convenient service and their drivers don’t have to pay for a staggeringly expensive taxi license.
In the face of what they see, perhaps fairly, as unfair competition, the cab drivers, of course, had only one choice: to go on strike.
And, of course, if you’re a taxi driver, “going on strike” doesn’t mean, “Staying home and refusing to work so that everyone will appreciate my services more,” but rather, “Blocking a busy street and refusing to let anyone go anywhere, so that everyone will hate me more.”
With this goal in mind, on January 26 this year, hundreds of crabby cabbies blockaded key thoroughfares in Paris, snarling (and snarling at) traffic, burning tires (after removing them from the vehicles) (usually) on the Périphérique ring road around Paris, and doing their best to prevent access to the two main airports.
And their best was pretty good: they managed to seal off Orly for a full hour, even obliging passengers arriving by public bus to get out in the middle of the highway and walk to the terminals.
I confess that I was uncertain about this point, but now, in light of that incident, I understand: any means whatsoever of traveling to the airport, except on foot, is unfair competition for taxis. Remember this next time you want to ride a horse to Charles de Gaulle.
Some of the drivers, caught up in the emotion of the moment, also eloquently expressed their grievances by attacking VTC drivers. And people who they thought might be VTC drivers. And people who they thought might be thinking about becoming VTC drivers. Or passengers. That’ll show them!
This, of course, left the VTC drivers with only one choice: to go on strike. One week later they did their best to disrupt traffic in Paris, mainly around the Place de la République.
They weren’t quite as disruptive as the taxi drivers, but they did make it difficult for the latter to do their jobs (which they were only too happy to do!). This, of course, now leaves the cabbies with only one choice: to read the end of my opening story.
It was a snowy night sometime back in the 1980s, a few days before Christmas, and all of the RATP unions were on strike.
When I left my last appointment of the day, I went to the nearest Métro station to see if one of the few still-running trains (earlier they had announced one per hour) was coming anytime soon.
The answer was no: by that time the number of trains had dropped to zero. Which was still a much higher figure than the temperature reading.
There were probably 300 would-be passengers in the station, some of whom had waited a long time, and all of whom were bitterly resigned at that point to trudging in the bitter cold to their destination, or waiting so long for a cab in that same cold, which was getting bitterer by the minute, that they might as well have trudged.
On my way back out to the frigid street, I noticed that, bizarrely, the ticket booth still had people on duty. There were two employees back there behind the glass — doing nothing, because for some reason no one particularly felt like buying tickets for trains that were never going to come.
Since it was just before Christmas, someone had decorated the booth with little bright-colored glittery stick-on letters spelling out “Joyeux Noël” on the inside of the window.
As I passed by, one lividly angry stranded guy started yelling at the ticket sellers, even though they obviously, since they were there, were not supporting the strike.
But hey — who else could he yell at? The gist of his tirade was, “You’re ruining the holidays but you have the nerve to wish us ‘Merry Christmas’?! It’s an insult!”
He then invited all RATP personnel to engage in a physical activity that, if performed on the spot, would have required the gentleman himself to commit an act of indecent exposure.
One of the guys behind the glass listened patiently to this impassioned soliloquy, and finally said, “Hmm. You’re right!” And starting peeling off the letters.
That’s the RATP for you: always focused on serving the customers!
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
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