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French strikes: Au revoir to class?

PARIS — On Oct. 19, Brent Lunghino '12 arrived 20 minutes early for his "Sociology of Social Movements" class. He soon realized he would not be able to make it into the building.

The problem? Stacked desks and poster-waving strikers were blocking all entrances.

Lunghino is studying abroad in France.

Despite days of national protest and various public-sector union strikes, the French legislature finally passed controversial retirement reform this week. On Thursday, for the seventh time in the past two months, unions called for a national day of demonstration against the contentious bill. A far lower rate of participation already has some newspapers calling for a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, which has pushed the reform, though the bill still awaits approval from another council.

For Sarkozy, it is a crucial reform to ensure fiscal stability. For many French citizens, it is an alarming encroachment on the national social welfare system. For the 24 Brown students studying in France, it is, at times, fascinating, irritating and confusing. Metro delays, cancelled classes and shouting high school students serving as alarm clocks have all become at least somewhat normal.

The kids are all right

"I think my parents do think I walk out my front door and put my head down and there are bullets ricocheting and burning cars and then I head into the Metro," said John Hammond '12.

Yet the dramatized uproar and violence covered by the international press is not necessarily representative of the lives of many Brown students studying here.

Has he seen any burning cars? No. While he has witnessed large protests, "on a daily basis, the strikes really aren't apparent," Hammond said.

Students who witnessed protests in Paris said, though they are sometimes large and raucous, they found them to be generally controlled, with a strong police presence.

Initial days of transport strikes caused Metro delays, but for the past two weeks, the system has been running mostly normally. Continued disruptions to air and rail systems have impacted some students' travel plans, but mostly only those involving transport outside the capital, and only on certain days. The well-publicized fuel crisis, due to blockaded refineries, has had a less apparent effect on the car-less Brown students.

For the six Brown students participating in the placed-internship program — Internships in Francophone Europe — the once-weekly night class run through the program has continued.

Unlike in past striking years, there has not been a national strike or a general university strike. But on several protest days, including Oct. 19, groups of French students and other protesters have blockaded various universities, causing some class cancellations. Students often don't know about a cancellation until they show up, though.

"I've had a snow day, but I've never had a blockade day," Hammond noted.

While barricaded schools might cause culture shock for American students, the strikes themselves are certainly not shocking.

"Every other year, more or less, there are some strikes," said Youenn Kervennic, professor and resident director for Brown-in-France.

In past years, the Brown program has been forced to privately hire professors due to class disruption from social movements, according to Kervennic. He is currently monitoring the number of cancelled courses and is ready to call in professorial troops if necessary to ensure successful credit completion. But for the most part, students have been able to attend their classes, and he does not anticipate there will be an issue this semester.

"This is almost like nothing compared to what it can be," he said.

Pandemonium outside Paris

The majority of Brown program participants take at least one class at the University of Paris VIII in the suburb of Saint-Denis, which serves a more diverse population than the universities within the city and has a reputation for radical student action. But for many students, it appears that only a handful of classes have been cancelled. Even on the days of action, a path through the strewn desks and protest literature generally appeared by noon.

The situation in the French city of Lyon has been much more chaotic, according to Sadie Kurzban '12, one of two Brown-in-France students studying there.

Or, not studying, as the case may be. Four days of university classes were cancelled last week, she said.

Lyon "was almost like a mini-apocalypse," she said. The Metro didn't run for days, and protesting crowds overran streets patrolled by helicopters. A friend was tear-gassed by mistake while coming to visit Kurzban's apartment, she said. And one day, she didn't leave her Lyon apartment because of the crowds and violence.

Kurzban has been in Paris for the past week — her school had a non-strike-related vacation — and has seen less evidence of social mobilization there. She has since heard that Lyon "has calmed down," and she expects to resume classes on Tuesday, she said.

University students are not the only ones affected. French high school students have been among the most vocal protesters. Many blockaded schools with garbage bins last week, but these young activists have drawn criticism from many who do not believe they could possibly be thinking about retirement yet.

"I think it's this generation that wants to relive the glory lives of their parents in '68," said Anna Baran '12. "There's this sense of revolution that the French want to hold on to."

Program director Kervennic was one such French high school student during the late sixties, when students would close the schools down every year, he said.

Today, "for high school students, it's almost a rite of passage," he said.

The writing's on the wall

Now, as a Brown professor, Kervennic only works in France one out of every three years. "I'm not on strike because I'm working for the U.S., not France. It's not my retirement," he said.

Kervennic also acknowledged that while the strikes are specifically about the pension reform, they are also about a larger dissatisfaction with the current government.

It is an insight that provides a little clarity to Americans mystified by all the fuss. The legislation, which must still be approved by another council, would raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, as well as raise the full pension age to 67 — ages that sound normal, even low, to Americans.

It is unclear how the strikes will continue to affect the nation, though many unions say they are determined not to let President "Sarko" win this one. The next national day of protest is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 6, and is thus unlikely to affect many classes, which is a relief for some.

"Since when does shutting down a university help solve sociopolitical problems?" asked one grumpy bathroom stall graffiti writer at Paris VIII.

The scrawled response: "Since Sarko."


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