Strike Hype

So I should confess that I’ve mostly avoided any experience of the strikes here in Paris.  I flew out of Paris on December 4th for a long-planned holiday Down Under.  The next day, the strikes began.  I just arrived back a few days ago and the strikers, worn down by almost a month with no pay, have mostly given up.  Just yesterday all the metro lines were running (albeit for a limited service).

There are knock-on effects of a metro strike, of course.  With everyone pushed out of reliable public transportation, the e-scooters (called trottinettes) are in high demand.  I spent 15 minutes yesterday walking to try to get a scooter and I was checking three different scooter apps as I did so.  So too today when I was taking the tram (3b) it was absolutely packed like I’ve never seen it before.

Friends have been messaging, asking about the strikes, and I try to remind them that just like the Gilet Jaunes, the international news media are in full hype mode.  The Gilet Jaunes have been in nonstop decline since their very first protest in November 2018.  French people (somewhat) understandably sided with them on the fuel tax, the government u-turned, and the public promptly lost interest.  Parisians have dealt with these outsiders showing up to our city (often committing acts of violence) week after week for over a year, but in ever dwindling numbers.  It’s all well and good to boast that it’s the XXth consecutive week of striking…but most of us go about our Saturdays not even remembering that anyone is striking about anything.

And as for this current transportation strike, it was again at its worst at the beginning, but it has been in nonstop decline ever since.  Public support continues to decline and the number of drivers returning to work continues to increase.  The problem is one of leverage.  The strikers thought that Macron would U-turn, but he didn’t, which meant everyone’s Christmas and New Year’s were affected.  There are no holidays in January, just people trying to work, and I haven’t met a single French person who would march in solidarity with the RATP workers for a “right to retire at 52.”  Sorry kids, life expectancy has gone up, which means you have to work longer, just like the rest of us do.  If Macron didn’t give in for Christmas, why would he give in now?

The strike has also hit hardest in Paris, as public transport in the other big cities of France is fully operational, and SNCF trains are now running at 85% of regular capacity or higher.  Can it go on much longer?  The question is how much have the transportation workers saved up.  There was a much bragged-about crowdfunder the other day that raised 1,000,000 euros for the workers, but if you divide that 1000 ways, you only have 1000 euros each, and there may be even more than 1000 workers staying out on an extended strike.  1000 euros isn’t going to make up for a month of missed pay that will not be paid in arrears whenever this ends.

What has impressed me is the willingness of the Parisians to just get on with things.  They are carpooling, buying or renting e-scooters, using the Velib system, using the (more available than metros) buses, or simply walking more.  There’s also, in the background, the reality that lines 1 and 14 (which are run by computers, not humans) have been running for 100% of the entire strike, and with station upgrades for lines 4 and 11 which happened all of last year, we can’t be too far off from a future when automated lines remove the last bit of pressure these unions can apply.  The 2024 Olympics which we will host are creating an environment to accelerate the building of lines for express trains from Orly and CDG to come direct into the city.  We might see the same thing happen with the metro lines as well.

One thing remains clear to me, the media always manage to hype things up enough that my friends outside of France are more worried about the situation than those of us actually living here.  It’s just a strike.  The problem with the French doing it so often is that, like any “threat,” the overuse leads to indifference.  You can’t scare anyone in France with a strike, not least of whom, it seems, President Macron.

We will see what happens…

The photo is from a 2007 strike, on the line 9 stop for the Franklin Roosevelt station.

Metro Bureaucracy

I was standing with a number of my fellow passengers that had just disembarked at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres metro station.  There were a number of ticket inspectors in front of me scanning the Navigo passes or simple tickets of the passengers.  Were we on the Metro legally or not?  They were there to find out.

My thoughts on fare cheats in general, and on those in Paris in particular, are for another day and another article.  Suffice to say there are always at least half a dozen people receiving tickets of between 35€ (you have an unused metro ticket in your possession) and 50€ (you have nothing) fines.  If you’re using a friend’s Navigo (we all have our pictures printed on them) you’ll get a 70€ fine.  And those are the “on the spot” payment costs, and yes, they do take credit cards.  It’s more if you pay later, and even more if you pay that fee past a certain date.

So why am I telling you this?  Obviously I had an intact Navigo (I’m on the annual pass plan), right?  Yes, except when my inspector tried to scan it she had a bit of trouble.  “Follow me,” she said in French.  We went to the main ticket window and they verified that my pass was indeed valid and that I had scanned in correctly from the last station.  “I’m going to get you a new card, this chip has worn out – it’ll be at your home metro station, which is?” Her French was fairly fast but by the time she stopped speaking I had put it all together and told her, “Reaumur-Sebastopol.”  “Okay, so I’ll have it there for you this evening.  In the meantime, here’s a day pass good for all 5 zones.”  I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and verified, “Pensez-vous qu’il pret ce soir?”  “Definitely, perhaps even in an hour,” she replied.

True to form, I got a text message telling me that my Navigo was waiting for me at my home metro station about an hour later.  I was flabbergasted by the efficiency of, of all agencies, the RATP.  Some time later I got there and showed them my text message and asked for my Navigo.  It was indeed there, but then commenced a 15 minute ordeal for the woman who tried to activate my card.  She called three different colleagues asking them about “a little checkbox that won’t click” in my profile on her screen and then asked me in French if I was in a hurry.  I nodded.  “Well, if you want to come back before midnight…” “Ici?” I interrupted.  “Non,” “not here, and not me, but my colleague in Les Halles.”  My head swam as I thought about which window to go to in the largest metro station in the world, Les Halles.  “Which exit?” I asked.  “9.”  I thanked her and some hours later I wandered into Les Halles and her colleague had not had a card printed for me but used my text message to create a new pass for me.  I tested it, and it worked, and I went home.

The next morning, I got a text message saying that my card was ready at Reaumur-Sebastopol.  On my way into the office I stopped in and told them that I had already gotten a new card made the night before, and after a bit of checking, he marked that I had picked up a card and tossed the extra card made for me in the trash.

All this is to say kudos to the RATP, who are proactively trying to fix a problem: updating people’s defective Navigos at an inspection point, and even making it easy, using a day pass and text messaging.  But even when they make it easy, it isn’t necessarily frictionless.  And that’s okay.  Be patient.  It’s France.  Why are you in a rush anyway?

The image is of a Paris Metro ticket from the WWI era.

paris metro

The Paris Metro: 6 Things To Keep In Mind

In any city in which there is a well-established mass-transit system there will be an enormous group of people going about their daily lives without clogging the streets with extra vehicles.  This makes sense for our planet, for their pocketbooks, and for our traffic sanity.

Paris has an excellent system of buses, trams, and trains – when the dear people who operate them aren’t on strike.  Now, mind you, they are not often on strike, but that kind of interruption, along with train breakdowns, station closures, or just plain crowded carriages are things that you need to factor in when planning your travel in Paris.  There are a few other things you should keep in mind as well.

1.  Don’t overly rely on the Metro

Paris, after all, is a city that deserves to be walked.  The sights, sounds, smells – good and bad – inform your experience and sometimes tourists develop a point-to-point mentality of the Metro so that they get to know the cavernous (and not particularly attractive) underground of Paris and miss the lovely passages (alleys), rues (streets), and boulevards.  Don’t be overly reliant on it.

2.  Don’t expect lots of elevators and escalators

“Step-free access,” as it’s known, is still developing in the Metro system, though it gets better and better every day.  The vast majority of stations have neither an elevator nor an escalator for your ascents or descents.  As stations get upgraded these are become less of a rarity, much to everyone’s relief, particularly parents with strollers or those in wheelchairs.

3.  Be aware of peak times

Some people say to completely avoid the Metro from 08h00-10h00 and from 16h00-19h00 and I understand why.  But if you’re visiting Paris it doesn’t make sense to force yourself to avoid the rhythms of our daily life here.  Make your plans and simply deal with the crowds if you need to be on the metro during those times.  You will get some appreciation for what we experience as Parisians and you will definitely be “immersed” in the Paris experience.  You’ll also push (or learn) your boundaries of comfort, and that’s always worth doing.

4.  Ask the staff

Don’t be afraid to ask the kind person at the desk for help.  Remember to always say, “S’il vous plait, parlez-vous anglais?”  They will usually say at least “a little” and you don’t need a discourse to get your answer, usually.  If the answer is “Non” try to explain using a metro map (always free) and using gestures.  You didn’t play all those games of Charade for nothing!

5.  Be yourself, but be watchful

You don’t need to turn into a paranoid person because of fear of pickpockets.  I remember my first visit to Barcelona, where I had been told that Las Ramblas was essentially a den of thieves.  After being ultra-paranoid my first day, because of this advice, hardly enjoying myself as I took in that walk down one of the quintessential streets of Barcelona, I remembered that my relevant documents and devices were not in places where they could be snatched off my person in broad daylight.

Instead of paranoia, opt for awareness.  We have thieves here, as does any major city, but you’re generally safe in most parts of Paris.  If you are keeping valuable items in your pockets, keep your hands in them at all times and try to stand in a place in which you have your back to the wall or a door so that no one can reach behind you without your seeing it.

6.  Get a good app

Paris is one of the cities featured in the amazing and free Citymapper app (available on iOS and Android), so use it instead of Google Maps to get many more options of travel, not just in the metro, but across multiple modes, like shared bikes, scooters, and rideshares.  If you are walking or biking you can also opt for “quiet/regular/fast” routes to adapt your journey to your mood and schedule.

Enjoy the convenience of the Metro which will whisk you around the City of Light significantly cheaper (and often faster) than private transport could ever dream of.  While our system is not as clean as Singapore’s nor are our trains as modern as London’s, the Paris Metro is a world-class system with almost smothering coverage of all 20 arrondissements. It is easily one of the best in the world for utility and price.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash