Once again and for the sixth time since my two boys went back to school in September, there is a general strike, a day of “interprofessional mobilisation.” Today, however, both of my sons’ teachers have decided to work. It would not be seemly for me to ask them why, but I suspect the reason is not that they’re against the strike, but that they believe the day of action will have sufficient impact without their participation. With over a million people taking to the streets, truck drivers blockading the roads, railway workers occupying the tracks, workers barricading the refineries and blocking the airports, both teachers may well feel that they can keep our little village school open without undermining the formidable tsunami of protest that makes France both the envy and the laughing stock of the world.
I know that the prevailing view outside this country is that these strikes are absurd manifestations of French petulance and immaturity. Expecting to retire at 60? What planet do the French inhabit? And how wise is it to paralyse the nation, further threatening its struggling economy for the sake of a privilege that is doomed anyway?
The feeling here is that this is not just about the retirement age but about the future of politics in this country, a notion that may seem a little absurd to those of us who believe that the age of political engagement is dead and gone. It is part of the French paradox that politics are still defined, for better or worse, by the interaction, or rather the collision between authority and rebellion. However sensible our parliamentary democratic traditions and our well-reasoned mistrust of the mob, the French don’t want to give up their revolutionary prerogative. The spirit of revolt in this country may be besmirched by violent episodes like The Terror but it is still the stuff that French dreams are made of, and this, I think, explains the massive support for these strikes.
Even those French men and women sitting in their offices in Paris, behind their spreadsheets, watching the marching hoards on their i-phones are susceptible to the thrill that goes with disobedience. And although they may have voted for him three years ago, they’re starting to feel the threat posed by Sarkozy’s style of governance to the political modus operandi of this country. They’re used to the dubious pleasure of seeing the power of the street weighing in key decisions and they, like many who support the strikers, are doing so with their hearts rather than their heads.