Dans la salle d’accouchement

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

I had a baby on Tuesday, a strange day to give birth in Paris. It was the 13th day of a massive strike against pension reforms, and unions had called for a big day of protest.

We took an Uber to the hospital on Monday evening. Across the city, entrances to the Périphérique were at a standstill. Our driver said he wouldn’t be working the next day. ‘There’s no point. Paris is going to be blocked, with protesters going from République to Nation.’

The proposed reforms will consolidate 42 separate ‘special’ pension regimes into a universal points system that will apply to all workers. Opponents say it will mean less money for everybody, and a higher retirement age that doesn’t take into account difficult working conditions. ‘I’ve seen older people crying over this,’ our driver said. ‘My neighbour was crying. I’m not going to wait for Monsieur Macron to give me a thousand euros for my pension. I’m thinking about people who work hard, people who work in construction for instance. An older retirement age doesn’t work for them. It’s not fair. Politicians have no idea.’

At the hospital, I asked the nurse who took me to my room if staff were striking. ‘Striking? We can’t. This is a hospital. We support strikers but we can’t strike. If we do it’s just by putting a sticker on our uniform that says “on strike”. All the others are striking for us.’

Last Friday morning I was on the Métro line 1, which still works because it’s driverless. We were informed that the service on the RER A had been interrupted because of an incident involving a passenger. In our overcrowded carriage, there was pushing and shoving, and insults were exchanged. The woman sitting in front of me said that the previous day she had seen a woman in her fifties hitting another woman, until an RATP employee held her back. Trying to take the RER in the evenings to go home was the worst, she said. She’d come to dread that journey. ‘It’s hell,’ she said, ‘but I’m supporting the strike.’

On Tuesday morning, as a team prepared me for my planned C-section, a nurse asked what I thought of nurses’ working conditions. At the weekend, hundreds of hospital doctors threatened to resign in protest at the lack of beds, caused by a severe shortage of nurses.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, the high commissioner for pensions reforms, resigned on Monday, after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose a dozen extracurricular activities on his declaration of interests form. On Monday evening, employees at the electricity grid operator cut supplies to tens of thousands of homes, mostly in the south-west. On Tuesday, according to the Interior Ministry, 615,000 people took to the streets across France. The CGT union puts the figure at 1.8 million.

Discussions between the government and the unions resumed yesterday. The government hopes that the movement will lose support if the strike goes on till Christmas. The unions say it will be the government’s fault if the strike continues. ‘Pensions will be the indicator of our capacity to reform,’ said Aurore Bergé, an MP for Macron’s party La République en Marche. ‘We will also be assessed on our ability to hold our ground on this topic.’

‘We’d like to strike,’ a nurse said to me last night. ‘But who would look after your daughter?’


  • 21 December 2019 at 4:52am
    wse9999 says:
    Bon voyage!

  • 22 December 2019 at 9:46am
    Blake Elder says:
    Without details it's hard to understand the situation. What is the current deal for workers? What is the government trying to do? Numbers help; 'pension consolidation' is a bit vague.

    For example, in an interview (25 March 2010) in the LRB, Tony Judt stated this about the French railway workers pension, then and now:

    One of the most expensive programmes in France, the retirement system for railway workers, was established in the years after World War Two. Its powerful Communist trade union negotiated a very good deal, particularly for train drivers. They could retire at the age of 54 on full salary until their death. At the time it was a very reasonable deal. These men normally started working when they were 13, and they had been working on steam trains all their life, which was physically difficult and dangerous work. When they reached 54, they were exhausted. Their life expectancy after that was about eight years. The pension was therefore not all that expensive for the state. Today their sons and grandsons have the same deal. But they leave school at 16, they go to work on the TGVs, where they sit on comfortable chairs, air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and the most demanding thing they do is push a button; they retire at 54 on full salary and their life expectancy is another 24 years. It is now a ridiculously expensive programme. But it would take political courage to say: ‘Look, the circumstances have changed. We still believe you should retire on a good pension, but not at 54. We can do it at 64. You don’t like it? Get a different job.’ It is a politically difficult decision, but it’s not a sign that there is something wrong with the principle of the social-welfare state. What makes it a problem is the lack of political courage. The reason it was affordable for so long is that Europe was incredibly wealthy relative to its expenditure. After World War Two it was a very young continent with a booming economy and could afford to pay itself. Legislation did not always line up but it did not matter. You just covered the costs somehow. This is no longer true. However, Europe is still incredibly wealthy. There is no reason why people should not be able to live very good lives within the EU, in the private and public sectors, young and old. It is a question of political decisions.

  • 23 December 2019 at 2:30pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    France is thought of as a country of relaxed habits, joie de vivre, absence of rigidities and Puritanical responses. That's what foreign tourists seek there. In fact, France is a country of rigid addiction to tradition, old traditions and newer traditions, bu nevertheless addiction to the way things should continue to be. Reformers like Macron always fail. So addicted are the French to their traditions that they actually liked the Vichy Regime--if only they could have had it without the German occupation. The French Revolution changed the country in many ways of course but far less than one might think.