Connect to share and comment

Big strike hits home in small ways too

The email alert from the U.S. embassy listed all the major avenues to avoid because of the general strike and maps on the internet confirmed the route. Since the march wouldn’t be passing through my neighborhood and hadn’t disrupted my daily commute, I decided to go meet the tens of thousands of protesters at the finish line.

The signs were colorful and the slogans even more so. The massive display of one’s constitutionally protected right to protest that was part street theater and part collective cry of frustration did not disappoint.

There was the effigy of Nicolas Sarkozy, green, ghoulish and handling a sickle, with the words the “black plague” inscribed on its back. An easy rhyming name like Sarko just begs for creative chants, one more insulting than the next. There were calls for the president's resignation, accusations that he was selling his people down the river to his rich banker friends and threats that sooner of later, the people would have his skin.

(Protesters carry an effigy of President Nicolas Sarkozy, depicting him as a green ghoul carrying a sickle. Mildrade Cherfils/Global Post)


By dusk the chanting turned to a call for marchers to head to the nearby Champs-Elysees. Officers in riot gear had other plans. They were waiting on the periphery, and began encircling the crowd from various sides, forming a human shield between the marchers and the glamorous avenue. A first volley of teargas burned my nose.

The crowd was not giving in that easily. Some began taunting the authorities, tossing projectiles and burning trash. One woman approached, pleading with officers to understand the people’s plight, letting them know that she was not against them personally and knew they were horribly paid as well. They ignored her. Others directed their anger and expletives directly at officers.

A safe distance from the projectiles and riot-gear-wearing officers, I met a family visiting from Redmond, Oregon.

Brenda Barrett, an airline employee, with her 18-year old son Justin Barrett and 23-year-old daughter Candace Wright, couldn’t get over the excitement. The family, on a three-day Paris stopover while on a European vacation, stumbled upon the protest by accident. They had been on a pilgrimage by foot — having been warned by  hotel staff about a disruption to transport service —  to see the Paris Opera house, which happened to be the location of the protest finish line.

“It’s a little scary, especially not knowing the language and what they’re saying,” Brenda Barrett said. “It’s a little intimidating.”

I answered her questions about what was going on as best as I could, translating some of the chants, explaining that people all over the country had taken to the streets to express their displeasure with the current administration and its handling of the financial crisis, that French pay was not keeping up with expenses, that services were being cut, that nerves were frayed, that the people wanted a change.

She commented that things were bad economically in the U.S. as well, worse than she had ever seen, with people not being able to find jobs, “but not as bad as this,” she said, gesturing to the protesters and the fact that so many people had taken to the streets.

Officers corralling the crowd into a tighter area and my frozen fingers and toes was my cue to go home. I had no trouble doing so by metro.  But all the talk over the last few days and weeks about purchasing power in France had become contagious.  Lately, I too find myself checking and double-checking the price of my produce. Now, I deliberately put off food shopping until Sundays when I can get the best bargains at the farmers’ market.  Otherwise, I find myself venturing from one grocery store to another in search of the best-priced lemons.  Tonight, on my way home, I debated whether I could wait until Sunday to stock up on a few groceries. The answer was a resounding yes.

(Protesters converge in front of the Opera house in central Paris, the finishing point of a protest march in January 2009. French citizens took to the streets in force in a nationwide general strike to protest against the country's current economic climate. Mildrade Cherfils/Global Post)