France protests, explained in five words: ‘Life begins when work ends’

To understand the fury felt by millions of French people, it helps to take a deep dive into the culture and history.

Ground to a standstill by strikes, France seems to have gone off the rails.

On Thursday, airport terminals were blocked, flights were delayed or canceled, trains, metros, trams and buses were running at reduced service if they were running at all, lines at gas stations were interminable and, most troublesome of all, Parisian sidewalks were nearly impassable because they were covered with mounds of garbage.

It has been happening — on and off — for months. It has gotten violent. And there is no sign of it ending any time soon.

“Working to live”

We have all heard about the “joie de vivre” for which the French are known, the almost clichéd joy taken in long meals and fine wines. Those things are not mere indulgences; they are essential elements of any French life, one in which work is what one does to facilitate the enjoyment of what comes after.

When it comes to the aphorisms “living to work” or “working to live,” the French are staunchly in the latter camp. Put differently, in France, life is what happens when work ends.

That phrase can refer to the end of the workday, the end of the working week or the arrival of August, when much of the country drops all labor and heads for the beach. Or the countryside.

Those legendary six to 10 weeks of annual leave? Virtually everyone here takes them all (the notion of carrying over vacation days is nonexistent), and they see that time as a rest period required to be able to work for the remainder of the year. Vacation is not seen only as recreational time; it is therapeutic.

“I was lucky to have a profession that I was passionate about, but many French people don’t enjoy their jobs,” said Jacqueline Dhers, a former professor who, at 78, fills her retirement by giving private classes, going to the theater and traveling. “But even for me, when I was working, I was too tired to do much during my holidays. I needed the rest.”

Work has ended. Life can begin.

Nothing like the U.S. — yet

The dynamic is similar when it comes to sick leave. Unlike in the U.S., where people regularly turn up to the office in various stages of illness, when the French are unwell, they stay home. The system practically demands it.

To get a paid day off in France, one must have a certificate from a doctor. The first time I felt too ill to go to the office, I made an appointment with my local GP to get such a certificate. I told him I needed a day, maybe two, to get over the virus I was fighting. He insisted I take five days. When I tried to go back to work after only two days, I wasn’t allowed; I was obligated to take all the time the doctor had indicated. And he turned out to be right. That’s how long it took me to fully recover. In the U.S., I would never have dreamed of taking those additional days.

Indeed, among the criticisms currently being leveled at French President Emmanuel Macron, there is the accusation that he wants to make France more like the United States. For many French, that critique means the beginning of an end to their way of life.

Meanwhile, if the current wrath over the pension reforms is about far more than an extra 104 weeks of work, the anger of protesters is also about more than pension reform. Another root cause is a long-standing feeling that Macron is a president for the rich and views the average French person with contempt. The reform measure that was adopted on Monday has few concessions for those laborers who hold the most physically demanding jobs and generally start working earlier and have a shorter life expectancy. And in a country that has the word “fraternity” in its motto, a strike against one is considered a strike against all.

“Our system is grounded in solidarity,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar and researcher at Toulouse-Capitole University, told me. She has been tweeting regularly about the reforms.

All this makes the current chaos predictable — or at least understandable. The French have a long history of shaping politics by taking to the streets and safeguarding their social protections through social action and civil disobedience. There is today an almost mythic pride in the stories of the 1968 protests that led to the dissolution of parliament and resulted in higher salaries, better working conditions and stronger unions.

The money problem

Along with France’s vaunted healthcare system, the current retirement program was adopted in the aftermath of World War II as a way of reconciling a fractured nation. The problem, all these decades later, is that the nation’s demographics and economic realities can no longer sustain the system’s largesse.

As in other countries, the working population pays taxes that fund the program; that was fine when there were roughly four working-age French citizens for every retiree; today, that figure is down to 1.7 and falling. People are living longer, the birthrate has fallen, and so the government has argued that the retirement age must change.

But projections as to if and when the system will go bust vary, and neither demographers nor economists seem able to convince millions of French that the changes are necessary, particularly at a time when the whole country is struggling with a spike in the cost of living.

“When you have a generation who works really hard, who pay taxes, who contribute, when you reach [retirement] age … now it’s time to live your full life,” Alouane said. “You paid for it. You contributed to it. You deserve it.”

That point may be familiar to other people in other countries. What gives it more weight in France is that old and deeply entrenched way of thinking. Again — life begins when work ends. And so what Macron has done looks to them like the theft of two years of life.

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