Amuse-Bouche No. 29: Striking differences
by Julia Frey
Il y a grève dans le RER, et manif chez Chanel
Il y a grève (there’s a strike). Encore ! (Again!) C’est la énième fois ! (It’s the nth time! ) In Marseille, garbage hasn’t been picked up for days; in Paris the RER (Réseau Express Régional d'Île-de-France: suburban train system) is on service minimum, and worse, the petroleum industry has called a rupture de stock (delivery stoppage), causing a pénurie d’essence (gasoline shortage). C’est la galère (literally, the galleys, where people are enslaved to hard labor⎯i.e., it’s pure hell). Huge, unruly lines wait for hours outside the stations service (gas stations). Fights break out. For certains (some people), essence feels essential.
La nation is paralyzed. This isn’t even une grève générale (a general strike). It’s a grève partielle, sometimes called une grève bouchon (logjam), where key industries partially close down, provoking just enough disruption to drive the population générale around the bend. We, for example, were supposed to take the TGV (train à grande vitesse: fast train) to Paris this weekend. Manque de pot (tough luck⎯as in losing the pot in poker). Nous sommes coincés (we’re stuck). You can no longer get there from here. The verb coincer is also used when you pinch your finger in a door, or when the flics (police) close their dragnet on a crook; if you feel coincé/e, you’re uptight.
But back to la grève. Historically, the noun la grève means shore or beach. In Paris, the square in front of l’Hôtel de Ville, at the edge of the Seine, was originally a wide beach called La Place de Grève, created by silt washed up from the river. It held un gibet (gallows) and un pilori (stocks), popularly known as une justice et une échelle (ladder). These were used for public entertainment⎯like decapitations, hangings, the rack, etc. Life’s a beach.
Etymology, though, is a slippery slope. Apparently faire grève took on its current meaning during the Industrial Revolution when travailleurs quit work and went into the streets (or marched to La Place de Grève) to insist on a raise. Before that, faire grève meant the opposite: to be out in the street looking for a job.
Curiously, although there’s abundant legislation in France to determine when it’s legal to strike, the law contains no official definition of une grève. My dictionary says it’s a prolonged collective work stoppage used as a means to acquire professional, economic or moral benefits. This last concept⎯striking for a moral cause⎯is virtually unknown in the United States. But in France, la grève politique, pressuring the government to correct perceived social inequities, is very common. And a lot of the time it works.
Many Americans don’t get this principle. When people in the US go on strike, it’s labor against owners, which was the case in the 2009 French strike of the Chanel fashion industry employees. But in 1981, when there was a national air-traffic controllers strike in the United States, then-President Ronald Reagan fired anyone who wasn't back at work within 48 hours. After that, air-traffic controllers, if they were lucky, could just about get a job at the dime store. In France, on the other hand, millions nationwide march in des manifs (demonstrations) to protest raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. (Paradoxically, before President François Mitterrand lowered it to age 60 in 1982, French retirement age was 65.) And in the United States a year later, when full retirement age was raised from 65 to 67, nobody went on strike! It wasn’t that Americans liked it. They were just emberlificotés (bamboozled). If you weren’t an employee of the Social Security Administration, how could you go on strike against it? In France and plenty of other countries, this is a minor detail. If enough people don’t like something, nobody goes to work at all; you just close down the country.
France has a creative range of strike possibilities: A grève perlée (literally, like a string of beads) is a work slowdown, considered illegal. In une grève du zèle, each employee zealously follows all work orders to the letter, producing the same effect but within legal bounds. So as to spread the effort, sectors sometimes organize une grève tournante, in which different groups take turns stopping work, one at a time. Alternatively, in une grève ponctuelle all work stops briefly at specific times⎯as when, say, in une grève de solidarité, (also illegal), the contrôleurs aériens (air traffic controllers) stop work for five minutes an hour, closing down all the airports. Similar results are achieved with une grève sur le tas (on location), also known as des bras croisés (with folded arms). Employees are physically present, but don’t do anything. Sometimes, in labor disputes, businesses organize their own kind of illegal strike⎯un lock-out (verb: lock-outer). They collectively lock shops and quit paying their employees.
But back to the grève des retraites (retirement pensions) that recently provided such great photo ops for the TV. Students marching next to their striking teachers. Violent adolescent casseurs (rioters: from casser, to break) busting shop windows and burning cars. And everywhere the walking masses, chanting and carrying banderoles (banners) with slogans of wonderful verbal richness. One announces “LA RETRAITE AVANT L’ARTHRITE” (retirement before arthritis). Another, playing on the familiar expression “métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, workday, hit the hay⎯i.e., the monotony of everyday life), changes it to “METRO BOULOT CAVEAU” (cemetery vault). Another reads “ BOUCLIER POUR LES UNS, BOUCLEZ-LA POUR LES AUTRES” (for some, shields from tax / for the rest, shut your traps).
A little obscenity always serves to pimenter (spice up) a manif. One banderole refers to current president Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife: “CARLA, ON EST COMME TOI, ON S’EST FAIT NIQUER PAR LE CHEF D’ETAT” (Carla, we’re like you, we’ve been screwed by the head of state). The chants are good too: “Pour ceux d’en haut, des couilles en or, pour ceux d’en bas, des nouilles encore” . This contrepèterie (spoonerism) translates approximately “those on top have golden cojones, the lower classes live on macaroni.”
Still, I’m taken aback when on the evening news, a little gray-haired lady who has been waiting an hour and a half to gas up her car announces, “Ils nous font chier!” (literally, “they [the strikers] are making us crap.”) Now MY mother wouldn’t be caught dead using the English equivalent ("p****** us off", or "f****** us up")⎯at least not on national TV. Can "faire chier" be used in normal conversation? I check with Gérard. His reply is swift and unambiguous. Only if you’re an ado’ (teenager). A polite alternative would be faire suer (making us sweat), because suer conveniently sounds a little like chier, but smells better. The vieille dame indigne (undignified elderly lady) must have been very indignée (indignant, upset).
© Julia Frey 2010