Richard Reeves

Rain and Sun in the Streets of Paris

PARIS -- On the eighth day, the sky took pity on the Parisiens. The city was still limping, pedaling and cursing along last Wednesday, but the rain stopped and the clouds cleared as a warm autumn sun made the world look new.

It was not new, of course. But it felt a lot better struggling through the strikes and traffic jams and demonstrations that began on Nov. 13 and sometimes turned 20-minute commutes into 4 1/2-hour ordeals.

In fact, Paris loves being old and probably always will. It is one of the oldest of the world's great cities, venerating and protecting the architecture and art at its center and believing that the workers of the world will unite. The dreams of short hours, long lunches, long vacations and early retirement are dying hard.

What is happening here is a slow-motion revolution, very slow motion. An impatient new president has promised to change the rules, old and new. Nicolas Sarkozy has many passions and notions, among them the idea that there is something wrong with paying train drivers substantial bonuses for shoveling coal when there is no more coal, and forbidding bosses from requiring employees to work more than 35 hours a week.

They call Sarkozy "l'Americain" not because he loves McDonald's -- I assume he doesn't -- but because he believes France cannot compete for the riches of the modern globe unless it adopts the optimism and practices of the United States. He wants the educational flexibility and loose work rules and habits that constitute what we like to call "the American Dream" -- that is, the idea that you can fail and fail again, and try and try again, and still have a shot at the big time or the big bucks. Understand, it is the idea, the hope, that is important, not the probability of result.

In France, you fail once and that's it. Your life is tracked by a few tests given in elementary and high school. The life of the losers can be comfortable -- and the workers are those relatively comfortable losers in a rigidly hierarchical society -- but it is close to impossible for those lives to change. Baccalaureate scores and accents are destiny.

So, the train drivers and the bus drivers, the schoolteachers and the petty bureaucrats, organized a long time ago to keep what they have, which, depending on job or union, can include coal-shoveling bonuses, free child care or health care, or retirement at the age of 50.

That is why they are in the streets as I write. In the old days, at least as I remember them, people in the streets, walking to work in the rain, would cheer singing, demonstrating strikers during one- or two-day strikes, really short tests of strength with the government.

Not this time. The International Herald Tribune, which could not publish last Tuesday because its printers struck, came back on Wednesday with a cartoon reprinted from Le Temps in Geneva, which showed two workers with "Strike" signs on one side of a Metro station. Across the tracks, dozens of commuters trying to get to work held signs saying, "We're Fed Up!" and "Enough Is Enough."

It has not gone quite that far yet. These strikes and protests will not end with a bang or a whimper. Whatever number of people are angry at the workers in the subways and other transportation sectors, there are many more who sympathize with (or are) schoolteachers and government employees, generally believed to be underpaid compared with the more traditionally militant union members.

Sarkozy's conservative fans are hoping for drama, praying that they are watching Margaret Thatcher break the power of British coal miners, or Ronald Reagan firing air traffic controllers for daring to strike illegally. This trouble will end in compromise. But any compromise now, real cracks in the solidarity and rights (or privileges) of the French unions, will slowly evolve into a steady erosion of their power in the society. They are going to lose, but not in eight days or even eight years.

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