Friday, October 1, 2010

The natives are restless

Yes, the natives are restless, which is not an unusual state for the French, who are among the world's most dedicated whiners.

The target of their complaints these days is retirement reform. The French have some of the longest life expectancies in the world—in fact, French women have the second-longest lifespans in the world, after the Japanese—and so naturally the population is gradually aging. The problem is that the country has long had generous retirement policies that allow people to retire from some jobs as early as 50 years of age. But the way things are going, 50 years of age is closely approaching the midpoint of life, meaning that a person retiring at that age is going to live for just as long after retirement as he did before. And that's a problem, because the working portion of the population has to support the retired portion of the population, and the former is shrinking, while the latter is growing.

For years, the French government has tried to address this problem, but the French descend into the streets at the slightest provocation, and interminable strikes by major labor unions have caused the government to constantly pull back on its plans to reform the retirement system. Still, reform is a mathematical inevitability, so it's only a question of time. The longer the government waffles over it, the worse it's going to be. You'd think that labor unions would understand this, but they don't, and since their primary concern is actually to show how powerful they are, rather than to work in the best interests of their constituencies, they constantly oppose every hint of reform.

Anyway, this means that there are lots of demonstrations in Paris. Anyone who lives in this city is used to those, but they are still a nuisance. Some of them have been taking place on my standard route to school, which means that for days at a time I run into CRS agents (riot police) who are blocking one of the streets I usually take, forcing me to detour down a side street. The CRS is there to prevent any demonstration from getting out of hand, since there are always angry males in any demonstration who can easily get carried away. Usually everyone behaves, but no chances are taken. Chanting is one thing; throwing rocks at the windows of government buildings is quite another. The CRS aren't always friendly when working in this capacity, but they are generally civil, and actually I usually prefer to be on their side than on the side of the demonstrators, who tend to be very self-centered and aggressive sometimes.

So I thread my way between demonstrations. Sometimes I'm unlucky and I stumble right into one, with people chanting and carrying banners and what-not. They always want the same things: either special privileges or money. They even use the same tune for their chants, although the words change. Sometimes high-school and college students demonstrate, but only because it gives them a day off from school—typically they have even less of a clue as to the purpose of the demonstration than their elders.

My neighborhood has a higher than normal proportion of government buildings and ministries, so it gets a lot of demonstrations. Usually the CRS are good at figuring out who is part of the demonstration and who isn't, and those who are obviously just local residents going about their business are allowed to move unimpeded past the barricades. Sometimes they are mistaken, especially in my case, because, with my hiking boots and shorts and my fly-fishing vest, I suppose I look like a militant. But eventually I get to where I'm going. Sometimes I find myself on the CRS side of the barricades (as in my picture here). I find all demonstrations tiring so I just avoid them; there is no novelty in them for me.

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