• BEST IN STATE—Senior Courtney Schoen Lewis was named Best PR Student in Utah. Story

USU Huntsman Scholars get up-close perspective on European politics in French strikes, demonstrations

October 23rd, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Landon Hemsley
HNC European Correspondent

PARIS, France—The recent strikes in Paris and throughout all of France have severely affected national transportation systems across the country. During the past week, not only have train workers stopped working, but oil refinery workers, vehicular transportation workers, teachers and students have also gone on strike or joined protests that range in severity. Air traffic controllers have considering striking as well.

This means that over the last week, French and tourist passengers alike have had to face occasionally massive overcrowding on trains and metros. Long lines have formed at gas stations, and uncertainty about the future of the French government has taken a firm foothold in Paris.

Listen to an interview with Landon Hemsley about the Paris strikes and demonstrations on Utah Public Radio. Part 1. Part 2.

The strikes are in protest of recent government moves to alter the French retirement and pension systems to make them more affordable for the French government. President Nicholas Sarkozy and his government propose to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

In Paris and in Lyon, police have responded to violence by demonstrators with tear gas, riot gear and arrests. The demonstrations, often violent, have not deterred the government, and the French Senate passed the pension reform law by a vote of 177 to 153.

On the whole, strikes in France are common—some occur annually, and strikers must first ask for a government permit before striking—but most strikes are ignored because they don’t have widespread public support.

Nick Webster, a British businessman working for Huntsman Chemical Corp. in Brussels, offered his personal perspective on the strikes. “People in France know that they can’t afford the current pension scheme,” he said. “They’re not stupid. They’re very bright, but they don’t like the way that Sarkozy is doing it.”

“There’s a low tolerance for autocracy,” Webster said, “and it’s reinforced by the fact that most countries of Europe have seen rebellion and historical removal of power from ruling groups, and you see that today. The amazing thing about the strikes is not that they are striking, but that a large proportion of the public is actually supporting it.”

French and British media are saying the demonstrations and strikes may not necessarily be a movement against the retirement measures as much as against Sarkozy himself. A recent Time-CNN poll found that 66 percent of French citizens support the strikers.

But Jordan Douglas, a USU student and Huntsman Scholar traveling in Paris, is not among them.

Douglas, an international business major in USU’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, spent the Saturday night last weekend sleeping on the hard floor of the Centrale Train Station in Milan, Italy, because his train to France had been canceled by the strikes. He and four other Huntsman Scholars were trying to get to Paris by Sunday evening to regroup with other USU students, who are touring Europe with the school’s Scholars Program.

“Beforehand, we had booked a night train from Milan to Paris so that we could get back with our group,” Douglas said. “We take the ride from Rome to Milan, and then we get to Milan and hear that there were strikes in Paris. We were in the station, the train hadn’t been canceled, and the train was coming. Ten minutes before it’s supposed to take off, the train was canceled. We were pretty upset.”

Douglas and his companions now faced the challenge of traveling through three countries in one day to the current center of European political unrest without the aid of public transport and without a car. Douglas said the staff at Milan Centrale was much less than helpful, and with nowhere to go in Milan, the group simply stayed and slept on the marble floors.

“They basically said, ‘It’s France’s fault,’” Douglas said. “‘Figure it out yourself.’ It was awful.”

While many say the French pension system needs to be reformed, and while the French political system is working out change in a turbulent time, it is clear that in France, the process of change is very painful and disruptive—much more disruptive than in the United States.

Douglas’ journey did eventually end well in Paris. He said he and the other four USU students with him traveled through Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, largely by train, before finally managing to catch a bus from Brussels to Paris. Douglas said the whole disjointed journey, a direct consequence of the strikes, was horrible.

“Awful experience,” he said. “Basically, 40 hours and not much sleep later, I’m cranky, exhausted, and just basically lovin’ life.”

Landon Hemsley is a Huntsman Scholar touring European businesses this Fall.


Tags: ,

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.