16 October 2010

Vive la grève!

Marseille is not the cleanest city in the best of times. That habit of dropping garbage where you stand is hard to break for many Marseillaise. The city cleans up as fast as it can but it's heavily outgunned.

But these are not the best of times. I have to write another strike article because the French are still at it. For a week now, they are protesting president Sarkozy's new law that raises the retirement age from 60 to a shocking 62 years (still the lowest in Europe; 65 to 67 is typical). Well, in fact a big reason is Sarkozy's arrogance on the subject - it has to be done, l'état c'est moi, shut up.

So the trains don't go (the trains are always the first to stop), all twelve refineries in France are on strike so fuel is running out, and without fuel the planes don't go either. People have begun to hoard gasoline and food. As a nice extra touch, the garbage men are on strike too. Which brings us back to Marseille.

When I went on my garbage safari this morning, I got a lot of comments. Clearly I was a journalist, the world travels to Marseille to look at the garbage. C'est Marseille. Marseille, the cultural capital of the south. The Marseillaise take it with humor. And they try to be neat about it. Each trash container now sports a carefully balanced trash pyramid on top, palettes and cardboard boxes are used to build impromptu walls, and in a pinch a car makes a nice retaining wall for garbage. For a while, until the garbage overflows. I have seen a motorcycle about to be swallowed by a ravenous garbage pile, only the front wheel and handlebars still stuck out. I wonder if it will still be there when the garbage is finally cleaned away?

And with three-meter piles of garbage in the street, surely nobody minds if they add a few mattresses and refrigerators and other jumbo junk that normally wouldn't be picked up. It's going to become worse too - the strike is open-ended, so I expect the garbage to attain critical mass in a few weeks, become sentient, and begin to hunt humans for food.

You can't have a strike without a nice protest march. The French are good at this. The police closes a few roads, the protesters line up under the colors of their unions, and they bring signs, whistles, and trucks playing music. First come the red shirts (communists complete with hammer and sickle flags, and Attac), then the white shirts (FSU), then the orange shirts (CFDT), and finally a forlorn bunch of blue shirts (UNSA) who have strapped a badly sagging blimp to the roof of a truck for some reason. Where else can one see communists these days, now that North Korea has become a hereditary monarchy?

Mixed in are some brave student groups; at a rally in Paris last week a 16-year-old lost an eye to a rubber bullet after which the responsible minister promised to use "less violence" in the future. But in Marseille everyone is relaxed, there isn't even tear gas. The leaders of each group carry a wide banner with the name of the union, which serves the same purpose as those divider bars on supermarket checkout belts. Clearly these people are pros, they have done this many times before and they will do it again. Like, maybe tomorrow.

Me, I ride my bicycle to work. Let the traffic self-destruct, I don't care.

BTW, a puzzle: was the reference picture below taken in Marseille, France, or in Chennai, India?

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