"Are you okay?"
A caring question I've heard from family, geographically distant friends, and even some of you OS members (thanks so much for your concern).
It's understandable: This week, France has looked like a pretty chaotic place overseas. It makes me think of the way the media portrayed the social unrest of 2005, when areas in socio-economic difficulties here saw cars burned and violence against police. These incidents were troubling and even tragic on many levels, but no one in Paris itself felt or was threatened. I even had friends here asking me what was going on; was there a problem in the poor neighborhoods outside the city?
I think the international media – especially our good old U.S. media – likes to sometimes take these incidents and blow them out of proportion. And you know what: why not? Personally, I’d much rather watch a newscast with a little spice and drama, than a dull account of government policy change.
Last Tuesday, I attended a protest march in the heart of Paris (http://open.salon.com/blog/alysa_salzberg/2010/10/19/strike_day_8_fear_love_and_a_demonstration), but witnessed no violence, only passion. I know that as this march – and many of the other marches like it throughout France - progressed, it was plagued by casseurs – violent hangers-on who break windows, loot, and generally make a lot of trouble. But it’s important to remember that these people are not associated with the strike or the protests. They’re just using the latter as a way to do what they want while everyone’s distracted. Not that I think the casseurs should be totally discounted. Their anger and destruction is a cry for help among many, many others that we see every day in France, generally from disenfranchised-feeling minority populations.
When you watch the news, you probably see images of burning cars, police confrontations, tear gas thrown into crowds…but that’s not what you’ll actually see in Paris. The week’s gone by fairly calmly here. The gas shortage hasn’t really been felt by those of us who use public transport, which runs on electricity. The students and friends I know who have been affected by it, though, have told me stories of waiting in long lines at gas stations, and having to strategically plan to fill up their cars long before leaving for vacation (fall school break starts this week).
But for most of us here in the City of Lights, life goes on as usual. The streets are busy in their usual way, the chill of winter is creeping more and more into the air. Movies are playing, plays are showing, the FIAC (International Festival of Contemporary Art) is in town for its strange annual visit.
Yesterday, though, a major event worthy of a million riots happened quietly at the Senate. This branch of government approved the retirement reform bill, albeit by a narrow margin. The next step will happen on Monday, presumably, when a small committee of General Assembly and Senate members will convene to decide on which of the 1000 proposed amendments, will be added to the law. This latter is an important concession by the government. But it probably won’t do much.
But do I feel sad or defeated? Not at all. Most of the law’s main opponents – students and certain unions – have vowed to continue striking until the law is overthrown (a possible, though unlikely, outcome). Their passion and refusal to give in, inspires me.
The most effective strategy so far has been striking workers’ complete shutdown of many of the country’s refineries. As I’d guessed in my post last Tuesday, the government was indeed lying to us about its supposed gas reserves, as well as the fact that there was no gas shortage. The most recent statistics show that ¼ of all gas stations in the country are still dried up, and from what I’ve heard, the other ¾ are being cautious.
The government, meanwhile, has sent riot police to a number of key refineries, to force them to re-open. Yesterday,I saw a clip on the 24- hour news channel of striking workers at the gates of a refinery being pushed aside by armored CRS (riot police). I know it’s not fair to completely deplete the country’s gas resources. Ambulances and other emergency transport run on gas, after all. Like Olivier Besancenot*, I want a bloodless revolution.
But I want a revolution, nonetheless.
My thought as I saw these workers being pushed aside, was, why doesn’t someone among the strikers just sabotage the equipment at the refinery? Nothing big or completely irreparable, nothing to cause an environmental disaster, but just, say, a part that’s missing or damaged and that will take a long time to replace?
When I say things like this, my boyfriend shakes his head. He’s taken to calling me “Louise Michel”. This woman, a teacher and very modern thinker, was an influential member of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary force that tried to take over Paris for a few months in 1871 and establish a new order, one that in many ways would have improved conditions for most citizens.
While it’s flattering to be compared to Ms. Michel, I know I’m not one smidgen as brave. I go to protest marches, but stay on the sidelines; like Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso in the early 20th century, I may say and think bold things, but I’m terrified of getting into trouble and being deported. Louise Michel, on the other hand, seemed to know no fear. (Side note: Though a French citizen, when the Commune fell, she was also deported, to a prison colony on the very far-away island of New Caledonia. Ten years later, she was pardoned and allowed to return to France.)
This whole experience has brought me closer to what that woman must have felt in her heart. There’s a kindness for others and a hope that no one will be hurt, but at the same time, a desire to push, to do something, no matter how extreme, in order to make life better (or, in my case, keep it as it was). I’ve come up with some other solutions I’d like to see, such as the refinery workers agreeing to do their jobs again, but at a decreased capacity, with the gas being distributed first and foremost to emergency health transport.
But mostly I find myself wondering if I know anyone who could do some damage to a refinery?
* (from my post this past Tuesday): I love postal worker and Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste leader Olivier Besancenot: not only have I always found him incredibly cute, but, radical or not, he spoke on the radio this morning and eloquently put the thoughts of so many of us, into words.When asked why nothing had changed, though he’d said that the strikes would make things change, he replied “I didn’t say thingswould change. I said they could. We have the choice.” When asked about his radical-seeming call for revolution, he explained that he didn’t want a revolution involving blood and violence, but a revolution of people’s minds, a taking back of the government.