Friday, 16 November 2007

Street life

It is Day Three of the national transport strike and the French have adopted what Britons would call the Blitz spirit; namely a stoic resolution to get to work by whatever means possible unless, of course, they are striking. Though the strike itself might be seen as confirming the notion that the French are a bunch of workshy layabouts, the fact that the vast majority of people are overcoming considerable obstacles to get to their offices seems to prove the contrary. I hope attendance figures are produced when this is all over.

I also hope records are being kept for the number of pedestrians killed or injured on the pavements during the strike. Even at the best of non-strike times Parisian pavements are dangerous places whose daily hazards include parked (and parking) vehicles, cyclists, motorcyclists, scooters and rollerbladers (mothers perambulating a pushchair without due care or attention do not count). Already the number of cyclists using the pavements has exploded since July when the city authorities installed around 10,000 free bikes under the otherwise brilliant Ve'lib scheme. I am a huge fan of Ve'lib but these bicycles should not be anywhere near defenceless pedestrians. Not only are their riders mostly people who have not wobbled their way anywhere on two wheels since they were teenagers (serious cyclists have their own bikes), but a Velib' bike weighs a hefty 20 kilos. It is quite a challenge keeping one eye out for that much speeding metal and one eye out for dog doo on the ground.

Broadly speaking, the strikes are over President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to reform the 'special' pension rights that enable train and metro drivers, gas and electricity works and even those employed by the Paris Opera house and the Comédie Française theatre to retire early, sometimes at the age of 50. The train drivers claim their job is arduous, though as The Independent points out, the days of having to fire up steam engines has long gone. In the Nouvel Observateur magazine a flautist from the Paris Opéra justified early retirement because, she said, after 50 the ear goes and musical standards decline. Hmmm. This argument opens up all sorts of possibilities: secretaries retiring early on full pensions because their fingers cannot type so fast; postal workers because they can no longer read addresses; journalists because they have forgotten what the questions are...And why not? It does seem below the belt to point out that French people work an average of 617 hours a year compared with 800 hours for the average Briton, but I am going to anyway. Having said that, if I was French I would be striking to hold on to those extra three-and-a-half hours of leisure a week and the right to give up work at 50.

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