The Washington Times

You are perhaps wondering what it is like to be in Paris at the time of a nationwide strike, in which demonstrators gather in an attempt to be deemed expressing the “general will” in opposition to their government’s betrayal of the principles of “liberty, equality, fraternity”? For there I found myself a week ago today, when – but let’s let Reuters catch us up, with reference to the repeat performance scheduled for today: “Tuesday’s demonstrations and strikes will be keenly watched for signs that two months of sometimes violent protests peaked last week with the three million demonstrators that unions say joined a nationwide day of action on March 28.” Where to begin? Maybe with the 3 million figure. That’s the figure the unions are giving, and it bears about as much relation to the actual size of the demonstrations as one might expect from those who have every incentive to vastly overstate their influence.

The day after the “day of action,” police put the nationwide total at 1.2 million. Now, perhaps the police, being tools of the authorities, understate. But please bear in mind that this is the total number for all of France. The authorities put the size of the crowd in Paris last week at about 92,000. For perspective, Camp Nou, the FC Barcelona soccer stadium, holds 98,800 people.

Next up, “sometimes violent”: Well, sure, but mostly not violent. In fact, what isn’t “sometimes violent”? If you could find the demonstrators in Paris last week, you might also find on their periphery some purse and cell phone snatchers, rock throwers, window breakers, etc. But even this brief statement has the effect of making the scene sound worse than it was. I suppose if you were really keen on finding trouble, and even the “sometimes violent,” you could do so by concentrating on the main march route and the crowd around the Bastille, just as things got “sometimes violent” around the Pantheon the previous week. But the essential point is that you could walk through most all of Paris Tuesday in perfect safety.

Which takes us to “day of action.” In fact, I found out subsequently that the 24-hour general strike was actually a 36-hour general strike, supposedly having begun the night before. I must say, however, the early start disturbed neither my dinner Monday night nor the Metro ride back to the hotel around midnight. And as for Tuesday, by early afternoon, as the weather was clearing up from the morning rain, it was a fine day for a stroll amid the shops and cafes, all of which were open for business.

As far as I could tell from personal experience, by late afternoon the chief effect of the “day of action” on the Metro was that one might have to wait as long as six minutes for the train, rather than the usual four. The hotel concierge said the museums were all closed. And while there were indeed credible news reports that workers at the Eiffel Tower were telling visitors the tower was shut for the day, I didn’t bother to verify personally the claim about the shuttered museums and have since been unable to find a press report indicating they weren’t open. I remain agnostic on the point: Perhaps the children got to the concierge and paid him off, the better to further their aim of completing their tour of Paris chocolate shops.

All in all, if you got the impression that Paris was burning last week, you got the wrong impression. A simmering cauldron? Nothing of the kind. A day off in the springtime? More than that, certainly, but it’s closer to the reality than any suggestion of the breakdown of the social contract.

As for the substance of the protests, the essential question is whether young people getting their first job can be fired without great consequence to the employer for a period longer than the current probationary period of a month or two. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, proposed lengthening the period to two years in an effort to encourage hiring by employers who are skittish about bringing in new and untested workers, only shortly thereafter to be stuck with them for life. It looks now like the government will execute a partial cave-in to the protests, lengthening the probationary period but not by the full two years Mr. Villepin proposed.

I’ve written some harsh things here about Mr. Villepin over the years, but in this case, my sympathies are entirely with him. The French tend to complain about the jungle capitalism of the United States, where people are supposedly left to fend for themselves or die. This stands in contrast to the French social model of protection for workers – to the point of the ridiculous, which characterizes both the demands of those participating in the “day of action” as well as the “action” itself. The weather is a bit variable, but Paris is lovely in the spring.