14 September 2010

Nothing moves

The French TGV bullet trains are marvels of technology. They are built by Alstom and test trains have run at 575 km/h, although regular service is slower. France built the fastest train in the world and proudly handed it over to - the slowest train operator in the world, perhaps. It's not that SNCF, the French national railway company, would be poorly run or incompetent. The trouble is that it employs 180,000 French.

The work ethic in France is based on different principles that in other countries I have worked in. Suppose SNCF were to decide to let half the employees go, and there would be a massive strike - a grève - that would stop all wheels in France. The same massive strike can be expected if some union worker's aunt's little brother's hair dresser has heard a rumor that the new transportation minister may have said something about SNCF. Grève. A passing cosmic ray? Grève. Works every time.

Right now the government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to - well, guess, maybe 67 like in Germany? No, 62. An outrage! And that after working a grueling mandatory 35-hour work week. Grève! Seven different unions decided the time has come to play a little havoc on the economy last Tuesday. The roads were packed with cars because the trains didn't go, and I didn't see any buses either. And the air traffic controllers never miss a grève. Nobody complained, they might have a little grève too this afternoon maybe so let's all have some fun. They'll do it again next week.

When I first arrived in France, they were already several days into a grève of tank truck drivers who supply all the gas stations. You can imagine what that did to traffic; turns out that gas stations don't have much gas stored at all. No French city would be complete without earnest men in safety vests handing out grève leaflets at intersections.

On the other hand, the train from Nice to Marseille I used last Sunday was perfectly punctual. Trains in France work really well between grèves. If only they wouldn't route every line longer than 100 meters through Paris. But that's for another blog post.

Hm, I like pictures but I don't have grève pictures. Grèves are characterized by what's not there. So I'll show you a typical "summer opening hours" sheet you'll see in shop windows, to illustrate the hard life that French retail workers must endure until their well-earned retirement. Yet French workers manage a higher productivity than their industrious neighbors, the Germans.

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