Great Britain

Sirens blare and drivers swear, but Parisians keep calm and cycle on

The British like to claim exclusive rights on “Dunkirk spirit”– the ability to remain stoic and determined in a difficult situation. Today, after more than a fortnight of transport chaos and strikes over pension reforms, I can report that Parisians have shown themselves equally adept at keeping (reasonably) calm and carrying on in a crisis.

The French have their own D-word; “Système D”, standing for se débrouiller, meaning to find a way of doing something when you haven’t the means or material, or the more vulgar se démerder, to manage, get by, figure it out.

With most metro lines closed or severely disrupted and few buses and suburban trains, workers in the capital have got around using alternative means: cars, bicycles, electric scooters, mopeds and, failing everything else, on foot.

Unlike London, Paris intra muros is concentrated and walkable. My brisk march from Place de la République to a briefing at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday took an hour; an early press conference at the chic Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs Élysées – roughly the same distance – took longer on heaving rush-hour pavements on which pedestrians and tourists trailing suitcases were joined by bikes, electric and non-electric scooters, electric uniwheels, even a few mopeds.

Le Parisien newspaper produced an article entitled “the joys of walking”. “Had enough of packed transport? Bicycle too dangerous?” it asked, alongside a helpful map showing how long it would take to walk between major points in the city. Ten thousand steps a day? No problem. If only the torrential rain would stop.

Riding a bike and crossing a road in Paris can be perilous at the best of times given the sometimes flexible approach to red traffic lights, but as vehicles gridlocked junctions, blocking crossings and bike lanes, everyone had to take their chance. The strikers’ unions have called for solidarity, but on the city streets it was everyone for themselves. The soundtrack of central Paris became a cacophony of sirens, hooting, shouting and swearing accompanied by appropriate gestures. Mostly, we just shrugged and carried on. Some of us even smiled.

Parisians raided damp cellars for long abandoned bicycles – which led to a sudden demand and consequent shortage of inner tubes, according to one city centre repair shop – and rode them without helmets. First-time scooter-users wobbled and weaved between traffic. The Paris fire brigade said that the huge increase in two-wheelers had led to a 40% increase in accidents, most of them not serious, fortunately, because traffic jams delayed paramedic teams from reaching the injured.

For those who live in the suburbs but work in the city, getting to and from offices, cafes, restaurants and schools has been more problematic, leaving most exhausted before they even start work, and dead on their feet by the time they get home.

As the protests continued into a third week, the government might have hoped that transport chaos fatigue would spark a backlash against the strikers (despite similar three-week protests in 1995 forcing the government – not the unions – to back down). It was also banking on turning public opinion against those, such as rail-workers, who enjoy special privileges and early retirement.

Sentiment shifted in favour of the protesters, however, after prime minister Édouard Philippe pulled an unexpected rabbit out of the political hat by announcing that the government wanted a “pivotal” retirement age of 64. This would mean the official retirement age remains at 62, but workers would be encouraged – not forced – to work a further two years. Protesters accused the authorities of increasing the retirement age by stealth and the move alienated France’s biggest union, the CFDT which, until then, had not taken part in protests. Macron is also reported to be unhappy with the move, putting him at odds with his PM.

Recent opinion polls sent mixed messages: a majority (67%) still said they supported the idea of reforming the pension system but 57% didn’t want the changes proposed by the government and more than half those polled (54%) supported the protests.

Demonstrations last Wednesday drew between 615,000 and 1.5 million people across France, depending on who counted, down from the first pension protest on 5 December, but still a very respectable turnout.

Those who hoped for a Christmas truce were disappointed as the week ended and, despite negotiations, both sides remained entrenched. The government has said it is determined to push through the reforms, which would replace the country’s 42 different pension schemes with one “universal points-based” system over the next 18 years. Protesters argue that the proposals erode hard-won workers’ rights.

If President Emmanuel Macron and his government hoped to turn union leader Philippe Martinez, head of the hardline CGT, into the pension crisis bogeyman, they have failed. Instead, protesters last week brandished a picture of Macron dressed as Louis XVI. Others have likened the president to a figure who is even more hated in France than the guillotined ex-monarch … Margaret Thatcher. The question now is: will Macron be for turning?