Liberty, Equality, Strikes

“The protests have been largely peaceful, but clashes between high school students and the police have resulted in injuries and burned cars in the past few days. Students and young people have only recently bolstered demonstrations, and the government is concerned their participation could lead to more radical confrontations.”

Thursday October 14, Gare de Dijon. My first full week of classes completed, I push my way off the train and through the crowd waiting to board.  My eyes are fixed on the sign above the stairs: sortie. I don’t see the people who bump into me and I only whisper an inaudible “pardon” to those I push.  I am tired.

Down the stairs.  Into the station. Up the stairs. Into the light. The crowd disperses.  Some plod northwest, briefcases in hand, toward Avenue Victor Hugo, others straight ahead, toward Centre Ville.  I am not paying attention and suddenly I’m caught between two police officers who block the way to Place Darcy. “Pas par là, pas par là,” they repeat, forgetting to tell me which way I can go.  I sidestep and take up my normal route again.

But my nose starts to tingle and my eyes begin to water and only then do I realize what is going on.  Up the road, a curtain of smoke clouds the street and people rush in all directions, scarves pulled up around their noses.  There’s a fire!?  A teenage girl runs in front of me and doubles over, coughing.  Her friend offers her scarf.

“But Mr. Sarkozy has shown no sign of abandoning his plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 — a measure designed to pay for pensions at a time when, across Europe, ageing populations depend on ever fewer young people to finance social safety nets with their taxes.”

My friend Sara is an assistant at the high school level.  Last Friday she led a class in which half of the desks were empty. “Why are your classmates striking?” she asked.

“They don’t want to be in class,” said one of her students.

“Is that true of everyone?”

“No,” countered another lycéen. “Some people actually are fighting for their retirement, even if it is far in the future.”

Sara was bold enough to ask, “Does anyone realize that by the time you reach retirement, there won’t be money to finance your pensions if the reform doesn’t pass?”

The panic to "faire le plein" (Sunday)

“The national railroad authority announced cancellations of around half its high-speed and normal services on Tuesday…The authority said support for the strike among railroad workers seemed to be running at around 30 percent compared to 40 percent for the previous stoppage a week ago.”

Tuesday October 19.  I leave three hours early for work today, to catch the only train running before my first class.  I wait an hour and a half after my last class to catch one of the few trains back to Dijon.

As I get off the train I hear whistles ahead.  Down the stairs…up the stairs…I see the police. I smell the smoke.  I tuck my chin into my coat and continue through the crowd and on toward Place Darcy.

–Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times coverage of the strike.

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3 Comments

Filed under Dijon, Laugh it off

3 responses to “Liberty, Equality, Strikes

  1. Wow. You make it sound as if there is war going on here.

    • Hi French Bean,

      Funny you should mention that. When I came out of the train station last week and my eyes started watering from the chemical gas, I was frightened at first. I thought, “this is only a strike — to think of the terror of war.” I tell you what, walking past heavily-armed police officers –their bodies protected by bullet-proof vests and their faces covered by helmets — was an experience that contributed to the tone of my post. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I love your writing, Emily.

    It’s interesting to hear how the strike is affecting the bigger cities, and how very different our experiences of the strike are. The craziest thing that happened in Digoin was that about 40-50 high school students blocked one of the auto routes for about a half hour. I saw them march down the road, and the gendarmes lazily took up their positions. Everyone was smiling (even the police cracked a few indulgent grins), and people living above their shops opened their shutters to take a peek at their city’s youth.

    I read reports of the violence in Paris and Lyon and it all seems so far away…

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