This past Tuesday, I ended my last class ten minutes early. While I gave my students the chance to go queue early for lunch and beat the crowds, I stayed behind to pack up my things and check my work email. And as classes started being dismissed in the surrounding classrooms, I began to hear the sea of voices in the hallways, per usual. But then, weirdly enough, students started poking their heads in and out of the classroom where I was seated, before throwing a quick look in my direction, and then disappearing. After a few minutes, a few of my students came in and half-asked, half-stated, “Madame? The doors are blocked. We are locked inside. They aren’t letting us out. Please, can we go through the window?”
Panic set in. Being American, my thoughts jumped immediately to “guns”, “terrorists”, and “school shootings”. I thought I had misunderstood them. Surely, I must have. What did they mean, we were locked inside and couldn’t leave? That couldn’t be legal, could it? What if there was a fire? I didn’t receive an email about any such procedure? You surely cannot keep university students whom are technically adults locked up in an academic building without explanation?
I wasn’t really sure what to say, so I simply replied, “I’m not here, and I don’t see you.” The students looked at me, kind of smirked, muttered, “Merci,” and bolted out the window and onto the outside campus. Suddenly, word spread like wildfire, and no less than 25 students were escaping through my classroom window and onto the grounds.
“WTF is going on!?” is the only thought that was running through my head. The students muttered things such as, “It’s the protestors, it’s the strikes, they’re coming to campus!” before climbing onto the chair and out the window. Eventually, I came to my senses, closed the window, and locked up the classroom door to prevent further “escapes” while equally fearing a reprimand from a superior (how American of me). I cautiously made my way out into the hallway and saw students and staff alike with the same confused looks on their faces– the doors were locked and “blocked”; we were “forbidden” to leave, although it was grossly inconsistent, as half the students found a way to unlock some doors to leave anyways, and others had gone out the window. When authorities found students leaving the “locked down building” they responded in a very passive manner, “No, you can’t unlock the doors to leave, it’s not allowed,” but then didn’t actually do anything to reinforce or follow through on their statements.
Needless to say, there weren’t very many of us left in the corridors. We could see other staff and students from neighboring buildings going on their merry way, which is what made the inconsistency even more infuriating. Even worse, No one, not even the staff who were instructed to “block the doors” could tell us exactly why we were locked inside, or why we couldn’t leave, even though more than three-fourths of the building’s occupants had already left. The only thing I could think to say was, “THIS IS SO, SO FRENCH.” Eventually, we were told that the buildings had to be locked because the Nuit Debout, or Up All Night, protestors were in Valenciennes, and headed towards the campus (hence the trams and public transportation had been shut down to prevent people from coming). La Direction feared for the buildings’ safety as well as the expensive equipment locked inside, and therefore ordered all buildings to be spontaneously locked. We finally got the OK to leave around 1:15 PM, but even three days later I am still really confused about that entire situation.
Protestors in Lille
Nuit Debout, or Up All Night, is a French social movement which began on March 31, 2016, in protest to the newly proposed Labor reforms known as “Loi Travail” or the “El Khomri Law.” The movement aims to overthrow the bill as well as “the world it represents”. It is currently being compared to the United States’ Occupy Movement. Nuit Debout started in Paris at the Place de la République, where protestors held an all-night protest on March 31st. Since then, its influence has continued to spread all around other cities in France, as well as in Europe (they were in Lille both yesterday and a few weeks ago, destroying buildings with paint ball guns and paint bombs and fire crackers, while being reprimanded with tear gas. Additionally, Nuit Debout was protesting in Lisbon’s main square when I was there in April.)
Remember this scene from Les Miserables? Ever since the French Revolution, the French have protested everything– les manifestations et les grèves are just sort of engrained into French culture, as are supportive rallies (ie: see Charlie Hebdo and the Paris Terrorist Attacks). In a large sense, I love this about the French. They stand up for what they believe in; I find the French solidarity to be very admirable.
But what I find most ironic is that the French want change without changing anything at all. France’s unemployment rate is still at a shocking 10%, and up to 25% of young people are unemployed– at much higher rates than many other parts of Europe. Just a year away from a potential re-election, current socialist President François Hollande promised the French people that he would reduce unemployment, and would not run for a second presidential term unless he was successful. So, he recently proposed new Labor Reforms, and the French are not happy about it. The bill is over 3,000 pages long, but to sum it up, the main points of these new laws include making it easier for businesses to fire people as well as lay people off during tough economic times. The laws would also give more leeway to the strict 35-hour work week (allowing workers to work up to 46 hours per week, depending on their companies), allow for more negotiation when it comes to paid leave and holidays, and tax temporary contracts (C.D.Ds). The government argues that in response, companies will be able to give more permanent contracts to workers– in France, known as the sacred C.D.I. (Contrat durée indéterminé, which are VERY, VERY difficult to obtain), instead of the current year to year temporary contracts, C.D.D- (Contrat durée déterminé) or internships (Convention de Stage). The young people argue that you cannot trust French companies to respect workers’ rights; they will take advantage and exploit workers even more than they already do, and that companies will not even hand out CDD contracts because they are now going to be taxed. They believe that Hollande is no longer on their side, and that they are losing their rights as these new laws get put into place.
From my foreign perspective, France is full of red tape, and current labor laws are no exception. For example, it is virtually impossible to fire anyone in France, especially when they work in the public sector (teachers, for example, cannot be fired. Once they pass their concours, they have a job for life). So, because bosses cannot directly fire workers, they will stop assigning tasks and duties and shifts to said employee until s/he quits on their own. And because it’s impossible to fire anyone, companies are reluctant to hire anyone, and even more, to hire anyone on a permanent C.D.I. contract. However, without a permanent contract, it is extremely difficult to get approved for a loan, buy a house, etc. France = Catch 22. Workers are extremely protected in France, to the point where there are laws prohibiting working second full time jobs as well as working on Sundays. French women rarely report sexual harassment, because nothing is ever done to the accused. It’s the opposite of everything I had ever come to find “normal” in the working world whilst living in the United States.
Ironically, as a young foreigner living in France, for the most part from the research I have done, I actually agree with the French government. France NEEDS labor reform laws, and she needs them desperately. France is living in a day and age where their old way of life is no longer sustainable– in 2016, they simply cannot deny and ignore globalization and the realities of twenty-first century living. In my opinion, the reforms should contain a component which makes it easier to hire and fire staff- sometimes you get laid off because times are tough; sometimes you are a bad worker and a burden to the company- deal with it! Additionally, retirement age should be closer the 67, not the current 60– we simply live too long and cannot afford to retire so young (especially when people go to school until their mid-twenties!) The reforms should also give companies the power of setting their own hours for workers, and letting them decide if they would like to operate on Sundays or close everyday at lunch. These labor reform laws should be up-to-date with the twenty-first century: working remotely, working from home, and having the option of flexible hours. Start-ups and small businesses should be encouraged and supported instead of overrun by taxes and paperwork. Because the truth is, starting a business in France requires heaps and mounds of paperwork; and it’s very expensive and very discouraging (although I have a friend who recently launched a successful start-up!) It’s very difficult to get hired; young people are working as interns well into their late twenties and early thirties; there are way too many protections for way too many shitty workers. I come from a state where the teachers unions were recently abolished. I see the pros and cons of both sides of the result. I come from a country where you are never safe at work, which I realize is the only “normal” I’d ever known before moving to France, but also believe in a way keeps me on my toes, and helps me to strive to always improve and be better at my job. Don’t get me wrong– I don’t want France to turn to Capitalism, but sometimes I think it could use a healthy dose. I admire French people for using their voices and making themselves heard, but destroying public property? Protests resulting in tear gas? That’s not cool, and that’s not using your voice.
The French people who are participating in these protests claim that they are “Protecting workers’ rights”, but I find myself asking, “What are your rights, and when do you have too many? Is there a difference between ‘having rights’ and ‘being entitled’, especially when the current system currently isn’t working? Where is that line drawn?”
Obviously, such questions cannot be answered in just one person’s blog post, but I urge you to read, learn, discuss, and decide for yourself. Additionally, please keep the cultural differences and points of view in mind when reading these articles!
- New York Times- The Miserable French Workplace
- BBC- France Labour Reforms
- The Guardian- Up All Night: France’s Young Target Hollande Over Labour Reforms
What do you think of these ongoing protests and labor reforms? What does the future for France and its workers look like to you? If you are French, why are you for or against these reforms?