If you’re following current events in France through the American media, you’d think the entire country is in chaos. It's different if you happen to be in Paris, as I have been these past few weeks. Sure, there are daily demonstrations, scattered work slowdowns, gas lines in some cities (but not Paris), and disruptions in long distance trains. But this is all business as usual for the French whose unions regularly undertake “industrial action” when things aren’t going their way.
In Paris, the effects haven’t been very noticeable. The Metro and buses are running on schedule, the bakeries are selling their requisite stock of daily bread, and museums and other tourist attractions are open as usual. There was a scare at the blockbuster Monet exhibit while I was there last week when the entire Grand Palais was evacuated. But it turns out this is normal too. Either an abandoned package had been found or it was just a regular (if unannounced) drill in a city on perpetual high alert for terrorism. The police wouldn’t say which and there were no reports in the French press despite the fact that probably a thousand people had to stand outside in the brisk autumn air for an hour and a half.
The museum is clearly prepared for this sort of thing, handing out gold Mylar sheets to those shivering in the cold. Everyone waited patiently to be let back in. Of course we had no choice. Apart from the fact that there could have been a bomb or fire, all our things — coats, cameras and the like — were still inside and couldn’t be retrieved until the building was deemed safe.
For me, there was an unexpected benefit. Although I entered the exhibit (not to be missed if you’re in Paris through January 24) when it opened at 10 am, it was immediately packed. But when the building reopened, those of us already inside the exhibit were allowed special reentry, which gave us the chance to take time with individual paintings and avoid constantly skirting around others to appreciate the full sweep of Monet’s extraordinary talent.
All this is not to say that I haven’t been affected or irritated by the current situation. I have made my business appointments tentative just in case the Metro or buses get disrupted. I can tell this is incomprehensible to my French colleagues and friends who apparently take it as a matter of course that a strike or slowdown could disrupt plans at any moment. One of my French cousins and I had tickets for the opera Saturday night. On Friday I was shocked to learn that the performance might be cancelled if the stagehands decided to strike in solidarity with other unions — and we probably wouldn’t know anything more until shortly before curtain time. Although this news dismayed me, my cousin wasn’t the least bit surprised. Another cousin says one of the things he loves most about France is the unpredictability and frequency of strikes. Go figure.
There’s no question that, the above-mentioned opera situation notwithstanding, with each passing day I get more and more comfortable with the daily uncertainty. I figure that even if I unexpectedly get stuck somewhere besides where I was heading, in a city with more than 17,000 shops, countless movie theaters, breathtaking cityscapes, and a cafe on every corner there’s plenty for me to explore in any single neighborhood.
I have had one major disruption in my itinerary, although it is of my own making. I’ve been unwilling to chance a side trip to Nancy, where Art Nouveau got started. The last time I was in France two years ago, there was a national rail strike on the day I was supposed to travel there so that trip had to be cancelled. This past spring, the Icelandic volcano forced me to cancel another trip there. So this time, when a rail official told that me even if I got to Nancy easily, there could be problems getting back, I decided to take it as a sign from the universe that Nancy might be for my next life.
French businesspeople don’t have a choice about long distance travel. Another cousin who lives in Toulouse but has had two business trips to Paris in the past couple of weeks had disruptions both times. He’s been impressively blasé.
My first trip to Paris was in 1968 when I arrived a month after the worker-student revolution. That gave me a chance to see a France I didn’t know existed and this year I feel the same way. Like many Americans, I am confounded by the objection of so many French (69 percent in the latest poll) to raising the age of retirement. The change seems critical in a country that hasn’t balanced its budget in 30 years.
But through conversations with my French friends, family members, and casual acquaintances like the young woman I met at a hamam, I do finally understand why the government’s proposal is such a big deal. France has arguably the most extensive social welfare system in the world and the French are used to things like public housing programs that prevent renters from being evicted under almost all circumstances; exceptional, subsidized medical care; and unemployment benefits allowing those out of work to maintain close to their previous living standards.
This is nice work if you can get it and you can get if you’re French — at least until the new reform law goes into effect, presumably this week.