Clubs, Clowns and Johnny Hallyday

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  My daughter Emilie and I were asleep in the back seat of my French in-laws’ ancient Rover sedan, when we were startled awake by my mother-in-law’s incredulous and salty complaint about why we were slowing down on National Route 89. Dominique, my wife, was at the wheel, having agreed to drive from Limoges to Correze after a long transatlantic flight from Cincinnati. What with my own jet lag and fatigue, it took me awhile to focus my eyes on the scene and my brain on what, exactly, was happening. I hadn’t yet shifted into being able to comprehend rapid-fire French, which led me to believe I wasn’t hearing my mother-in-law correctly as she poured invective on actors, musicians, Johnny Hallyday, politicians, and the French unemployment system. What was this all about? Over a traffic jam? I squinted into the afternoon sunlight and saw at least a hundred people blocking the national highway right where we turn off to go to Correze, the village where my in-laws live. Some of the folks were carrying signs that read INTERMITTENTS EN GREVE. Others had signs urging motorists to boycott the Johnny Hallyday concert that night. Johnny H. in Correze? Was I still dreaming? Dominique eased the Rover into the crowd that was now beginning to engulf us. I looked over at Emilie to make sure she was all right. Like most nine-year-old American kids, she hadn’t experienced much social protest first-hand. I could tell she was a little nervous, but she tried to let me know she was OK by asking me why someone was dressed up as a clown in the middle of the crowd. To be honest, I couldn’t tell if it was a clown or someone costumed to look like a giant Chirac. Dominique urged her mother to tone down her anger at the delay. “Mother, they don’t know that we’ve just arrived from the States. And it might not be a real good idea to tell them that. Please let me try to handle it.” We were fully stopped now. More people were pressing toward the car. Dominique put her turn signal on, along with a big smile, and kept pointing to the small road that led off the national highway. I assumed she was trying to let them know that we were locals, hoping that might make a difference to them. It didn’t seem to be working, until a tall man with long curly hair came up to Dominique’s window. He looked like a leader. The crowd had parted for him. He leaned on the car roof, peered down at Dominique, then checked out who and what was in the back seat. What I guess he saw was a wrinkled and bleary-eyed big guy with his legs uncomfortably resting against carry-on luggage. Then there was the little girl in a too-small car seat that was jammed against the rear door to make room for even more suitcases. What he didn’t know was why we were so cramped back there—a story in itself that says something about the French. When we got off the small plane we had taken from Paris to Limoges, we were met by Domi’s mother and the bad news that our largest bag hadn’t arrived with us. While Domi tried to straighten things out with the airline, I went to the car with my mother-in-law and the rest of our bags. After popping open the Rover’s hatchback, my mother-in-law asked me what I thought we ought to do with the plums. There before us was a rather large case of freshly picked plums—right next to a sizable beat-up box containing my father-in-law’s car tools. My mother-in-law must have noted the bewilderment in my face. “Well, what was I supposed to do? My friends who put me up in Limoges last night just picked them.” She pulled one of the plums out of the case and took a bite of it, indicating that I should try one for myself. “Please don’t be upset with me. They really are quite good this year,” she said. “I’m sure they are,” I said. “I just don’t know what we’re going to do with all our bags. We might have to strap Emilie to the roof.” “Nonsense,” she said. “We’ll throw away your father-in-law’s tools before we do that. He insisted I take them along. As if I’d know what to do if the car broke down. And besides, we’ll figure out how to get it all in. Sure you don’t want a plum while we’re waiting?” And the women, including Emilie, did get everything in. I’m useless when it comes to packing anything more complicated than my shoes in my golf bag. We weren’t very comfortable in the back seat, but we had the plums, luggage (we were lucky they lost a bag) and tools, and were headed to Correze before being waylaid by striking actors and musicians. Dominique politely told the leader that we had just arrived from overseas. I noticed she didn’t mention we had come from the States, no doubt thinking the guy might be Yankophobe. I put my leg over an exposed American luggage tag, while leaving the Air France tags fully in view. But the leader was done with the back seat. He gave Domi a pile of handouts that explained the nature of the direct action being taken. He backed away from the car and gave a quick wave to indicate we could pass. A woman of about twenty-five, who had been observing all this while sucking violently on the end of her cigarette, protested the leader’s decision to let us pass. He waved her off, and Domi eased the car through the ranks of strikers. He stayed near our fender to protect us from being engulfed again. “Daddy? Who are those men getting off that bus over there?” my daughter asked. I looked past her out her window to see a brigade of riot police in full gear, filing out of a blue-gray bus. They were getting ready for a bit of direct action themselves. How could I explain to my daughter what was likely to happen soon? We live in a country that rarely has strikes these days. And when there are strikes, they are brief and rarely crippling in a national way. Most Americans aren’t much inconvenienced by them. What little social protest that occurs in the States…
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