Traditionally, Pentecost is a national holiday in France: one of those paradoxical Catholic holidays in a country that has become increasingly Agnostic (and Muslim) through recent years. Days off of work like this one are held in high esteem within the French cultural framework: wherein the rights of laborers are considered part of the duty of governance, and not commie blither blather like in the United States.
However, this year, the conservative government headed by Jacque Chirac and Co. decided to demand that employers send their foot soldiers to work in order that the government could raise enough revenue to cover the health costs of another hot summer. Typical scare tactics were used (as normal when trying to get people to do what they most certainly don’t want to do) wherein images of the heat wave of 2003 were driven down labor’s skull: “if you don’t go to work, then you must want to see another 15,000 elderly people dying in the streets of heat exhaustion like a few years ago.”
Oddly enough, every indication thus far points to an extraordinarily chilly summer, as the spring has been a bit of a weather disaster for vacationers and (oh I don’t know) American expatriates trying to enjoy one of those otherwise famous Parisian springs.
Further, France could always take a page out of the American book and just run themselves into debt if need be. Last year’s budget ran at 49.1 billion Euro below zero, and this year’s one is projected to be somewhere in the 45 billion Euro range. The real issue is that these both rest snugly above the Eurozone cap of 3% deficit in relation to GDP. The government cares less about heat exhausted elderly people (right, I can just see the rush to build new, state of the art air conditioned shelters for those in need….), and more about keeping in line with EU regulations. However, with the increasingly contentious EU vote set for May 29th, the government is hesitant to publicly blame any controversial, anti-worker policy on the EU.
Nonetheless, tensions have been relatively high within French industrial relations. The SNCF, which operates the Parisian area metro and regional train system, responded to union pressure by announcing that they would not be canceling the holiday. In return, they issued a press release promising that their workers would stay an extra minute and 52 seconds each day for the remainder of the year to help raise revenue for the hot summer. Un-amused, French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the rising star of the conservative UMP party, responded by saying “The SNCF is mocking everybody. If they thought they were being clever, they blew it.”
Sounds quite a bit like the words of one of my right-wing International Relations professors, Dr. Nikita Harwich. On paper, you’d expect a Venezuelan-Russian born in America who immigrated to France and has fluency in four languages to have a bohemian bone in his body; some love of cultural and linguistic diversity. However, listening to his lectures is nearly impossible: he’d be content that the Anglophone neo-liberal universe finally rid the world of all of its ethnic and national heritage in the name of increasing profit for the few brands that matter.
When he caught news of the SNCF’s intent to strike on May 16th instead of bowing to congressional demands, he decided to hold class despite the fact that the university had it scheduled as a holiday. His reasoning was some sort of warped “national pride”: that France needs this as part of its plan to integrate with Europe and compete with the rest of the neo-liberal world.
Unfortunately for him, he forgot about one extraordinarily crucial detail: our university classes are housed within the domain of the Alliance Francaise on Boulevard Raspail, whose administration’s intent to follow the national holiday remained unchanged. Thus, teachers, secretarial staff, janitors and everyone with keys had the day off.
Harwich and his plans to scab were left out in the cold and rainy spring Parisian day.
It’s these little victories that make me keep on keepin’ on as an oft-burned out peace activist and tireless opponent to the ever-broadening neo-liberal hegemony.
Matt Reichel is an American expatriate and graduate student in Paris specializing in international relations theory. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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