Traffic in paris

For Us Americans: What Is This Paris Transportation Strike, AKA La Greve

I used to keep diaries growing up and would fail to write in them for extended periods of time, then I’d come back and say, as if my diary was sentient, “sorry it’s been like two years, I was super busy with school. I still don’t have a boyfriend.” That kind of just happened with my posts here. Sorry it’s been 20-ish days, I got really busy with work, had an extreme allergy to my apartment, took a trip back to LA, then landed on December 5, the first day of the strikes in Paris.

Right now, I have a limited, outsider’s awareness of what the current strike is about, but plenty of knowledge of its effects. I’m going to write a biased, only slightly researched account of the whole thing to deliver an American in Paris’s perspective, and if I’m wrong on the facts, oh well because perception is reality.

The Backstory

It’s hard to fully understand the gravity of the strike and transportation shut down because the French are pretty blasé about them, some of them even accepting it as part of life like the weather. Leading up to December 5th, anytime someone talked about the strike at dinners or parties, they’d shrug and essentially say “yeah that’s really gonna suck” while I pried for more details of how bad it would suck, and why it was even happening. The only explanations I was able to get offhand were that the Metro workers were all striking, something to do with pension reform, which needs to happen, but they deserve to strike, it’s their way to show their opinion–all spoken as if they were reading tomorrow’s forecast. My French teacher said he supported them because the French have to be united in these moments, otherwise we’ll just be like America, and I guess he has a point. I didn’t google for more answers until I was at my wit’s end, because I’m selfish.

When I finally did hit up the google, I learned basically that the French pension system is bizarrely complex, too complex for a non-French to wrap their head around, and Macron’s reelection is hinging on whether or not he reforms the system and ends this strike. Macron and team are trying to consolidate 40-something pension codes into one, which would standardize all systems at the expense of many special allowances some unions, like metro and rail workers, enjoyed, like early retirement. That’s really all any of us need to know if we can’t vote and aren’t RATP employees.

What’s the Real Situation With Airports?

The first day of La Greve, I was flying back from LA. My flight was cancelled, then replaced by another flight at the exact same time for some reason. The van I hired to take me to Paris (because the RER and Metro weren’t running) decided not to wait for me, so I yelled at them and took an expensive taxi; not the end of the world. I thought I was going to have to drag my suitcase down the highway to get back. The first few days weren’t bad because lots of folks worked from home. The real shit hit the fan on Monday, December 9. Since then, I’ve heard folks taking three hours to get to the airport due to so many cars being on the road. So yes, getting to your flight is possible, just hard and expensive.

Saint Placide Metro Stop
Crowds at the Saint Placide Metro Stop

90% of Metros Out of Service

The reason Paris can get away with being so small is because it’s dense AF, and if any type of matter that needs to move here isn’t able to in due course, it creates epic bottlenecks. This is true of humans, waste, trains, cars, dust, bikes, mail–there’s literally no room for anything to fall behind pace. So with 90% of metros and busses closed, nothing works.

As a result, I saw some things. I saw intersections with cars woven together like giant latticework. Empty rack after empty rack of Velib bikes save for one with the wheel dangling from its maimed frame. Seasoned bikers (they’re the ones with helmets, not riding Velib) crash into inattentive pedestrians or impatient vans. People screaming at each other as they try to squish themselves onto an already full metro car on the 4 which is still running every few days. A girl riding a Lime between two busses who might have just gotten herself a nomination for the Darwin Awards.

I started classes at L’Alliance Francaise at the start of the strike, which is clear across town from my apartment. I thought I’d take a nice relaxing bus ride since the 4 line was closed, and gave myself two hours to get down to the 6th just in case. The bus was crammed full at 11:30 am, and Ieven saw a woman onboard crying because she was so squished, meanwhile the driver was a human shrug. I biked part of the way, walked part of the way, and it was fine as long as this thing ends soon.

35 Days In

Once we passed the one month mark, this became the longest transportation strike in French history. Right now we’re at day 35 and the constant inconvenience has become a manageable, throbbing pain as compared to the excrutiating spiles of the first few weeks. I’ve just accepted it begrudgingly until I see something really stupid like an ambulance that can’t even get to where it needs to be all so that a very small percentage of the population can maintain a special exception in their pension plans. At moments like that I get salty, but otherwise, I just keep accepting the inconvenience one day at a time, slowly becoming like everyone else around here.

And So…

I think the reason my friends here are so blase about the whole thing is because maybe strikes here aren’t like a fact of life, they actually just are a fact. If you want to attempt a system that represents everyon’s best interest, these things have to happen. Also, like many things in Paris, all your normal activities are still possible, just hard.

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