Friday, February 6, 2009

quelle difference?

Obviously, from all that I have said here, it has become apparrent to you that the French are different from Americans. Of course they are. This seems almost too obvious to say except for the fact that, well, it's not always obvious that the French are so different from Americans. And so, I am constantly looking for little insights into the French mindset that will enable me to better understand how they are different. It is so easy to make sweeping generalizations about a culture and never bother to find out the truth because the truth, in fact, is not necessarily easy to discover. It requires a bit of searching and analysing. And so, today I bring you a little insight on how the French really are different from Americans.

La greve: To "faire la greve" means to go on strike. There are lots of strikes in France, particularly in the transport and education sector, but in general there are many more strikes here than in America. A simplistic explanation of why French people strike, and one which I have heard on numerous occasions is that, "French people go on strike because they like to get paid for not working," which might be somewhat true (who doesn't like paid vacation time?), but that isn't the most important, or even an important reason for why French people strike.

The French do not strike because they are socialist. They are not socialist. Let me repeat that. France is not socialist. I do not consider free healthcare and free education socialist. I do not consider capitalism (and France is a capitalist nation) socialism. I do not consider a nation that elects its president to a limited term socialist. Having said that, my point is that when people go on strike here, it is not out of some socialist ideal. Strikers are not necessarily socialists. So there is no socialist baggage that goes along with striking here, which means that more people are likely to strike because they will not be viewed in a bad light as socialist-pinko-commie-radicals, whereas in America, as long as there have been strikes, there have been those who insist that strikers are nothing but socialists or communists in a great conspiracy against capitalism. Thus, fewer people strike in America because of all that baggage.

In France, people strike because it is their bargaining chip with the government or with corporations which, let's be honest here, rarely have the best interests of the people at heart. When 30% of TGV (train de grande vitesse--high speed train) trains do not run because of a strike, when the Paris metro is at a standstill (it takes about 2.5 hours to walk across Paris, and most people commute from the suburbs via metro) for days, when garbage is not collected, etc., the government or the corporation is forced to listen because if they don't, life will not be fun for millions of people, and no one likes a mad French person.

Thus, when unpopular legislation is passed or when workers believe that their human rights are being infringed upon, they strike to get the government or the corporation to listen. And often, this is successful, even if only moderately so. A literature professor of mine spent about 20 minutes explaining to us in class why public university professors are going on strike. It was amazingly complicated, and since I'm probably already boring you to death I won't elaborate, but apparently the government is trying to change the university system to distinguish research professors from teaching professors (usually there is no distinction--to be a good professor, you have to do research and stay on top of your field of expertise), and also to do away with some of the obligatory courses that are deemed "less important" (my professor, being a specialist in 16th century literature, is probably not considered to be a professor of essential information, though I would argue otherwise). Many, even the majority, of professors are against these changes, and so they are going on strike.

But the thing to take away from this is something that he said at the end of the explanation. He said, "This is French politics. This is how we dialogue here." In other words, this is how it is, not because of socialism or laziness (actually, I think it's the opposite of laziness, since strikers are incredibly well-informed and passionate), but because you strike to get people to listen to you. Americans have forums and town-hall meetings. The French have those too, but mostly to paint signs and banners for the strike the next day.


Fiona said...

"no one likes a mad French person." Ha! So true.

I think you hit it when you quoted your professor: there are different ways to communicate. This is the way the French do it (and have done it for a long time, long before "socialism" existed as a political affiliation). C'est la vie.

Cindy S said...

Hmm, I think I'd like to strike now, please. But for the lazy reason. And the Monday reason. )-%


Robin Chalkley said...

I think your view of socialism is somewhat simplistic. Free healthcare and free education definitely represent a democratic socialism, where the economic priorities are government-driven, not market-driven. It attempts to deliver expanded services, with much higher taxes. There are degrees of socialism, and France isn't at the Scandinavian end of the spectrum. Yet. And America isn't at the French level. Yet.

And yes, the French and Americans are different. Very different. We'd be a lot happier with them if they didn't think their different was better than our different.

I'm afraid this reads more strident than I mean it to be. I'm really enjoying the blog, enjoying seeing this experience through your well-chosen words. The blog was a great idea, and it's become part of my daily routine!