Although Sam Mendes’s 1917 debuted in Paris theaters January 15, I, like many of my friends here, have been reluctant to see it. We’re going through our own form of PTSD right now, and frankly anything involving tear gas and chaos, sirens and claustrophobia, isn’t something we need more of.
When I moved to France from the U.S., 17 years ago, I wasn’t naïve about the French penchant for going on strike. It inspired me, actually. I’d just arrived from a country that’d rolled over and accepted a stolen 2000 election with a “Can’t we all just get along?” cop-out. I told myself, Americans could learn a thing or two from the French. This was a place where farmers burned tires on the highway to fight for agricultural subsidies, and where an ex-farmer like José Bové could ransack a McDonald’s and turn the act into a political career.
But now that I’m living through week nine of the current strikes, which are protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to overhaul the retirement-pension system, a standoff that has now spread to docks, schools, and even lawyers (lawyers?), I can’t help but sympathize with those 1917 grunts Sam Mendes portrays in his film, poor souls stuck in a trench war they didn’t start, don’t understand, and have no idea how to get out of.
Just this past week, France’s Conseil d’État (Council of State) announced that Macron’s plan to scrap France’s more than 40 different state-pension schemes in favor of one universal system doesn’t make sense numbers-wise and is still “incomplete,” and that they could not give a favorable opinion. To add to Macron’s problems, French firefighters took to the streets to protest—and shocked onlookers when they started slugging it out with French riot police, both groups looking like estranged brothers at a Thanksgiving gone horribly wrong.
When I moved to France from the U.S., 17 years ago, I wasn’t naïve about the French penchant for going on strike. It inspired me, actually.
My French wife, Anaïs, thinks I’m being over-dramatic. This isn’t her first strike rodeo, she brags. In 1995 the same forces of unions and civil servants pushed back on then prime minister Alain Juppé’s similar reforms, shutting down the country and eventually forcing him to resign due to unpopularity.
“Now that was a strike!” she says, her eyes flashing with nostalgia. “But since Juppé was from the right, everyone was in agreement.”
Less so nowadays, she concedes, probably because people like me have a hard time painting President Emmanuel Macron as the bad guy. If he were in the U.S., I tell her, he’d be to the left of Joe Biden, to the left of Pete Buttigieg. She’s not sure who the second guy is, and she doesn’t care. To her, Macron’s a neoliberal ex-banker whose goal of the “Thatcherizing of France” must be stopped.
She asks me, “And why do you like him so much?”
“Well, his name’s not Emmanuel Trump.”
Anaïs and I have been having these contentious chats nightly, probably because we keep bumping into each other in tiny apartments one-third the size of our own—apartments we’ve been renting on Airbnb across town since the strikes started, so that our children can be closer to their school.
I can’t help but sympathize with those 1917 grunts Sam Mendes portrays in his film, poor souls stuck in a trench war.
This might sound nuts to many, but considering how the strikes have transformed the kids’ normally 40-minute subway rides into two-hour slogs taken from the book of Exodus, I’m starting to look at my Airbnb decision as a shrewd life hack.
If we hadn’t done it, we’d still be playing real-life games of Frogger, dodging bicycles and electric scooters driving on the sidewalks because the streets and bike lanes are now essentially parking lots. That, or we’d be waiting for overcrowded buses to pass us by, too full to even open their doors. Or we’d be in Dante’s fifth circle, the Parisian subway, where I saw one man enter a car by the window instead of the crowded door, and where my son claims he finally caught a train only to be ushered by personnel into a car for males only, supposedly in an effort to protect the “most fragile” passengers.
But when I complain to friends that our self-imposed Gypsy existence of bouncing from one apartment to another these past eight weeks isn’t easy, and how I’m on my fourth bottle of olive oil because I keep forgetting it in the previous apartment, I don’t get much sympathy. My friends are too busy telling me they spent more than $300 on Uber in the past week, or they parent-shame me with cutting remarks like “Well, we do a family bike ride to work and school together every morning. You just have to find the right bike app and the grit to leave the house by 6:30.”
Even my bleeding-heart wife has shown little sympathy with the people who are staying at our own place through Airbnb, unwitting Americans who assumed the strikes would be winding down by now.
Strikes have transformed the kids’ normally 40-minute subway rides into two-hour slogs taken from the book of Exodus.
“They knew what they were getting into,” Anaïs says, her look resembling that of someone who just sold bad credit-default swaps.
As cruel fate would have it, moments after moving into our fourth Airbnb we learned to our surprise that the transportation strike had paused and that the trains, buses, and subway were all running again. But France being France, someone found a way to turn the knife even more: teachers and students announced they now would be going on strike. There were plans for students to block the entryways of certain establishments to protest the reforms for the baccalaureate. And when my daughter announced with glee, “For once I don’t have to take a long train ride to protest,” I could see a sense of pride bubble up in my wife.
“Don’t worry,” Anaïs said to me. “You and Macron will have your expensive colleges and your privatized health care soon enough. Just don’t expect us to give you everything we’ve built in the past 60 years overnight.”
But before I could respond to Anaïs, letting her know I wasn’t asking to turn France over to the Koch family, that I just wanted to go back to my own apartment perhaps sometime this year, she and my daughter were already out the door, cardboard signs in hand, leaving me alone in our newest Airbnb as I realized that I’d left the coffee filters in the previous Airbnb and that I didn’t know this new Wi-Fi code.
It was during this moment that I was tempted to be like the rest of France, to just mail it in and play hooky. 1917 was starting in 45 minutes, and if I left now, I told myself, I could channel my inner Sam Mendes and film myself in one continuous shot on my trek to the theater. All I needed to do was pull up cestlagreve.fr (It’s the Strike) on my phone and see where the protests were happening that moment. That way I could film myself with my new coronavirus face mask crossing clogged streets with sirens in the background and people all around me yelling insults and waving banners and tossing tear gas. And when I entered the movie theater and sat down, I’d turn my phone slowly around and face it toward 1917 as it came up on the screen, making the transition from one war film to another look seamless.
John von Sothen is a writer based in Paris (obviously)