View from Rue Saint-Georges

Workers of France, Unite!

The personal misery of public strikes

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | May 23, 2018
Adrien Séné/Flickr
Adrien Séné/Flickr

The pain and havoc that the latest series of grèves, or strikeshas wrought on the quality of French life was sadly embodied by a young blond mother sobbing on the train platform last Sunday, pleading in vain with SNCF personnel. Why had our train, already hours late, stopped on the wrong track, leaving scores of passengers stranded? We were 45 minutes outside of Paris, heading south, but so far the journey had taken us three hours. All in all, I spent five hours delivering my daughter to her grandmother’s house not so far from the Orly airport, an excursion that usually takes 90 minutes roundtrip. The disruption was thanks to train workers striking to preserve their right to retire on full pension at age 52!

A few weeks ago, I got stranded in Berlin and was forced to spring for a hotel when an Air France strike grounded a day’s-worth of flights out of Germany. And even as I write this, my wife and I, along with two other families, have split the day’s childcare responsibilities because a teacher’s strike has closed our public school.

Unlike my wife and many of my friends (especially American ex-pat friends), I don’t have an opinion on any of the issues underlying this spring’s coordinated protests that are targeting the liberalizing administration of Emmanuel Macron. I just know that I keep experiencing the inconvenience of it all.

The benefits of living and raising a family in a social democracy impress me most days, especially when I compare notes with my brother back in Brooklyn. But the lived reality of that social arrangement can also be taxing. There is no such thing as a free lunch, I can hear my father say.

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