Paris, 18 October
During the strike in Paris on 18 October people holding papers hand papers to other people holding papers. An inflationary papering. The striking workers – mostly rail workers, but also miners, state utility workers, opera singers, librarians and actors from the Comédie Française – have pensions that allow them to retire earlier than other public sector workers – well before the age of 60. The rights they enjoy are known as régimes spéciaux and the government has proposed doing away with them. The strike action set for 18 October demanded the withdrawal of this reform. In return for the unions’ support last spring in the protests against the proposed first employment contract law (CPE), which would have made it easier to hire and fire young workers, students came out in large numbers to support the unions and the régimes spéciaux.
Vol. 30 No. 1 · 3 January 2008
Perhaps Alexander Zevin was out of the States in 2005 since he thinks Americans never protest on structural matters such as the division of national wealth (LRB, 29 November 2007). That year saw many ‘co-ordinated “actions”’ that eventually frustrated an attempt to privatise Social Security. A coalition of many secular and religious organisations was formed, led by the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union. Handbills and posters were printed. We marched, we held mass meetings, we signed petitions, we made lobbying visits to Congress. We succeeded.
Rochester, New York
Vol. 30 No. 2 · 24 January 2008
I read with interest Alexander Zevin’s ‘Paris, 18 October’ (LRB, 29 November 2007). In the autumn of 1955 I enrolled as an étudiante étrangère at the University of Paris, and on my first day of classes found myself in the middle of a demonstration. A professor who had been jailed for collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation was out of prison and coming back to teach. Left-wing students had organised groups to chant ‘Pas de collabos à la Sorbonne,’ while right-wing students matched them with chants of ‘Pas de communistes à la Sorbonne.’ A couple of other foreigners and I joined the shouting and shoving. No flyers were in evidence; paper was far too dear and xerography – even mimeography – was out of our reach. We milled and yelled for a couple of hours and then dispersed. This was before the police dared to enter the central court of the Sorbonne. The professor met his classes.
‘There are many ways to feel out of place as an American in Paris,’ Zevin writes, ‘but few are as jarring as joining in a protest.’ Why did my fellows and I feel ourselves so exquisitely placed? Perhaps that is a function of the vast differences – political, economic, demographic – that fifty-odd years have placed between my student world and Zevin’s. Not only did we know auto workers, some of whom attended our classes, but we were conscious of our privileged place in the class structure, whose existence the United States denied. We felt solidarity with a worldwide stratum (nobody said ‘global’ in 1955) of ‘students and workers’. How charmingly funky the phrase seems now, after the Prague Spring, May 1968, and the hegemony of MBAs.