“Bonjour, Paris, there’s a strike today.”
Anyone who has lived in Paris for more than a month gets used to hearing about strikes on the radio or TV first thing in the morning, probably at least a dozen times a year. Some union has a grievance with the government and the best—that is, the most French—way to win public support for their oppression is to inconvenience the public as much as possible. This has been going on since the end of world war two. Strike first and then negotiate.
After a couple of days, the strikers go back to work; sometimes because the government gives in, believing the inconvenienced public will take it out on them and decide to vote them out the next time around, and sometimes because no one has paid any attention to the strikers, no matter how annoying their work stoppage has been. Either way, this is known as French culture and is sacred, especially in Paris.
You get used to it. Or, I should say, you get used to it while living in Paris as I have for twenty years. But for someone who commutes between the capital of France and the capital of the United States, as I frequently do, it is strange when I wake up and hear, “Good morning, Washington, there’s a strike today.”
What I mean is that management and labor pretend to have reached an impasse, the workers go out, and somehow (and I have learned never to ask exactly how) the impasse becomes passable, and everyone goes back to work. But not today in Washington, D.C. Bonjour, the cab drivers are on strike. There’s no fix, but also no hope of the cabbies getting anything out of creating inconvenience, traffic jams, and indigestion.
The reason for the strike might be called the arrival of reality. Washington has had for years a zone system. No meters. In every cab, there is a zone map that the greatest cartographers at Rand-McNally could not figure out. Take a trip Monday at 10 AM and the cost of the trip will be six dollars. Take the same trip at the same time on Tuesday and it might cost seven dollars or, when luck is holding, only five. Or more likely, fifteen dollars since the zone system was designed to accommodate members of Congress who can travel further a field for relatively nothing, while it costs others a mini-fortune to travel a couple of miles. How is it possible for a Washingtonian to have crossed five zones in one cab trip? If I had a map inscribed in my head, if I’d turned the corner, I could have slashed one zone; and so be it for all of us who live in D.C.
The D.C. city government has decided to put meters in the cabs to the delight and relief of taxi-riders. The city council passed a law, the change will take effect in several weeks, and everyone knows there is no going back. Except the cabbies.
I guess they have learned from their French counterparts. This is not always bad. Americans drink better wine, eat better cheese, and spend more on bottled water because they have paid attention to France and the French. But creating an annoying strike that will clearly have no effect on the city’s taxi policy, that will annoy people caught in traffic jams, and that will lead many people to appreciate the subway, is clearly too French for Washington.
The typical Parisian simply shrugs. Of course there is a strike, he thinks, and of course it does not matter. It is, how shall one say, full of symbolism. The typical Washingtonian has no thoughts for — or patience with — symbolism. He (and more and more she) is much too busy admiring himself (or more and more herself) to make room for symbolism.
Besides, America has no real left-wing tradition like France. Even French rightists understand class oppression, even if it is defined as a thirty-hour workweek and retirement with opulent benefits at an age when most Americans think they are hitting their prime.
Washington taxi drivers just don’t understand: inconvenience is an assault on dignity, not symbolism. But they may be offering Paris a gift—or I should say a gift to the ordinary Parisian. Think of how much people living in Paris dislike (or pretend to dislike) McDonald’s, American reality TV, Disney, American workaholics, and whole-grain baguettes with preservatives. Too American, no panache, too commercial, no loisir.
Now think if the next time the transport union or the street cleaners went on strike, we were to hear something slightly different on the radio when we woke up, something like this: “Bonjour, Paris, there’s a strike today. How depressingly American.” The workers would be back on the job in minutes, looking smug and telling Yank jokes.
I wonder if I would miss the Gallic symbolism. I wonder if anyone would. And, if we did, we could always go to Washington for the weekend.
© Paris New Media, LLC
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