The Strikes of Summer – Provence-style

When friends envy us for living in the south of France I sometimes feel like telling them that it is not all roses down here. (There–that should make them feel better). And a ready example is of course the strike. As French as the baguette but a lot harder to digest, la grève is so regular an occurrence here that it has become part of the fabric of life. I was used to transportation strikes. Airplanes, trains, buses–they all strike for reasons varying from les 35 heures (the shortened work week) to protests against violence (a bus driver gets beaten up by hooligans and before he can say “Ouch!” his fellow drivers shut down the region’s buses), to requests for “danger pay” by those who feel their jobs warrant it, and on and on. But we have also had a strike of tax collectors and a strike of driving inspectors. The latter struck because two inspectors in the Paris and Aix regions had been attacked by students they had failed (you get the results of your driving test right away). The strike lasted about a month, causing back-ups and irritation at a time when high schools were getting out and many youngsters were scheduled to take their long-awaited tests before summer break. Oscar was one of those who were rescheduled (after having failed once) and when he took his second test he failed again–on a silly finicky thing, partly because the inspector was in a lousy mood. The tax inspectors shut the shop because the government had announced plans to consolidate the numerous existing tax-collecting offices into two main centers–one north and one south–which would obviously have put a number of people out of jobs. “Non, non et NON!” was the answer and after a month the government relented. This summer, however, we had a strike that got everyone’s attention and remains unresolved to this day: the strike by the Intermittents du spectacle, the temps of the theater world. These temps work only when called upon but have year-round salaries, covered by unemployment insurance. When the government announced planned cutbacks in this system, the reaction was swift and ferocious. The Intermittents shut down all the summer festivals, including Aix (opera) and Avignon (theatre), with disastrous results for the local hotels and restaurants during their top season. But full-time pay for part-time work in theatre has long been an acquired right in France, and when it comes to these droits acquis France has more of them than any other nation I know. It is always difficult to let go of something good and I suspect that elsewhere these acquired rights would not be given up without a fight either. However, the French have a tradition of settling their disputes in the street and this usually happens with overwhelming support of the people. Perhaps the reason for this is that France is a country of fonctionnaires (even cleaning people in schools and cafeteria servers are fonctionnaires d’état) and that every single one of them feels that the next cutback might happen to them. Be that as it may, the average Frenchman will not break a strike and solidarité is de rigueur here. Charles de Gaulle is claimed to have said that a country with more than 400 cheeses is ungovernable, and perhaps he was right. Yet, in spite of it all, life remains very douce here. Among the senior set, playing boules or pétanque is by far the most popular sport. And when you know that playing boules is about as exhausting as watching it, you can understand that many boules players are–‘ow you say?–perhaps a bit hefty? Lots of pots out there. It’s a sport for older guys who move slowly and talk a lot. And after they are through moving slowly and talking a lot they go to the café and play cards. In the center of Aix there is a boulodrome where you still find a little sign that says No Women. See if we care. But the other day they showed the world championship Pétanque in Marseille on television and it was an altogether different thing. Young(ish) men in white trousers and tennis shoes, graceful moves, lots of hits, and commented on TV in the hushed tones that are used for Wimbledon center-court matches. And of course, franglais remains a source of joy. The verb “relooker” has entered the French language, as in “Relookez votre salle à manger” (give your dining room a new look). “Un sweat” (pr. sweet) is a workout suit, “baskets” are tennis shoes (keds), and “raveurs” go to rave parties where they meet “taggeurs” who paint graffiti (“les tags” are graffiti). “Un break” is a station wagon and “Fioul” is what you burn to heat your house. See? You speak more French than you thought!   — Anne-Marie Simons has had a long career as a sometime secretary, translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races), realtor, and Director of Corporate Communications, which included writing an international newsletter. Now happily retired, Anne-Marie and her Argentine husband Oscar live in the South of France where she writes and Oscar cooks. TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by Anne-Marie Simons is available on If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe.
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