Last Thursday, January 29, I didn’t have to work because the teachers, along with over a million other French citizens, were on strike. Despite having attended the Valence demonstration and having asked several French people about the strike, I still can’t name one thing as the cause. To the best of my understanding, the nationwide strike was aggravated by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies in regards to the economic crisis. However, the teachers I talked to were mostly concerned about jobs being cut in education and low wages. Reports showed that this strike was even bigger than the one against the CPE that took place while I was studying in Clermont-Ferrand in 2006.
With all of this in mind, I was expecting to find an angry crowd at the Champ de Mars in Valence. But this was far from it. It was like being at a parade and I saw more smiling faces than raised fists. A French woman heard me speaking English and asked what I thought about the demonstration, and I said it was more of a “spectacle” than a “manifestation.” As you can see from the people on stilts above, there was even a carnival touch. Although the stilt ninja on the right was yelling at those people for some reason. So I guess someone was angry. But if Sarkozy watched the Valence protest on TV I would be surprised if he felt threatened by it. However, I’m coming at this from an American perspective and I realize that strikes are a big part of French politics. I’m still trying to understand how they bring about change. It seems like back in the States most protests concern big idea issues like abortion, the death penalty, the environment, or the war in Iraq. France is much more about protests and strikes in response to policies.
I watched the strike with the other Valence assistants. We’re from the USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I think it’s also hard for us to feel strongly about the strike because we all have our own economic crisis back home. The economy in the States worries me much more than that of France because that’s where my future is, at least for May and June. There were tons of children at the strike and it’s obvious that they grow up with this system of public demonstrating. It’s great that they are able to express themselves politically and even leave work without fear of losing their jobs, although I think it is sometimes overdone. But maybe it isn’t done enough in the States.
I enjoyed the music blasting from the back of trucks and the enthusiastic flag wavers who managed to energetically dance for about an hour straight. However, I didn’t stay for the whole day as it was obvious that it was going to last until dusk. This is the second strike that has caused me to not work since I started being an assistant in France. If the government doesn’t please the unions, it may not be the last. I’m not sure if the union leaders can agree on any solution to the economic crisis or if they can only be unified against Sarkozy. I’ll be interested to see what happens in the coming months.