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It's Not May Yet

Honoré Daumier, L'Emeute, c. 1860, Phillips CollectionI recently taught a class on the Realist painters, during which lecture I always show a slide of Honoré Daumier's L'Emeute (The Uprising), a favorite painting in the Phillips Collection here in Washington. It is always important to explain just how sacred the right to strike is to the French, a right guarded with the same zeal that Americans tend to apply to the right to free speech. Even when strikes in France, especially those that affect transportation, become burdensome to everyone by disrupting their ability even to get to work, almost no one in France would think of speaking against those who are striking.

I will be traveling to Paris next week for a spring break trip with some of my students and two colleagues. Besides the normal anxieties about flying after September 11, I was already a little worried about the news of the arrival of avian flu in Europe, which has already killed some birds in France. Well, our trip may now become particularly interesting and challenging, since France is presently exploding in massive strikes and demonstrations. The report on the evening news from France 2 last night qualified the scale of the disturbances as approaching those of the famous May 1968 demonstrations. As with "Mai 68" the unrest is centered this week around college campuses. Students around France are joining with labor unions to protest the proposal of the government, led by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, for a new regulation of workers called the contrat première embauche (CPE, first job contract). The students figure to be the ones directly affected by the new law, which would allow companies to fire recently hired employees without justification.

This is serious, because estimates are that as many as 500,000 people are now directly involved, and the numbers may get much bigger than that. Student protests and occupations have shut down somewhere between 40 and 50 universities in France. The news had footage of huge crowds of students occupying the main buildings of the Sorbonne in Paris. The university had everything locked up to prevent this from happening, but the students found a single window left unlocked and got inside. In a great Paris tradition, they immediately set up barricades around the occupied buildings to keep the riot police from approaching. I was shocked by the most recent news, that the rector of the Sorbonne called in the riot police to evict the protestors, who had started violently destroying property, a critical error in the public relations chess match. If the strikes continue through next week, I'll have some interesting photographs to send back from Paris. The demonstrators have called for a major day of action against the CPE on March 18, the day we are scheduled to arrive in Paris.


Mark Barry said...

Flu schmoo, your a healthy stud person. There is nothing to fear but vaccines! Go have fun.

jfl said...

I was going to say: Good news, Charles, You are not a bird! :) (And some hands-on experience on the strikers will be fun for the students. Excellent way of showing interactively why the French economy is sluggish, why it can't create jobs (despite staggering productivity), and why their social welfare system is threatened. But then again, there is no better place in the world to be a seasonal musician!

cheers & have much fun!