At the risk of generalisation, expatriates in France can be divided into two kinds. The first consider that the French are basically just like the British but speak a different language; the second consider the French to be an utterly alien race who only merely pretend to be like the British. The second view, which can of course be slightly racist, tends to sell books. We prefer to take the first view and can often be heard speaking in the different language as well. After all to be honest there is very little difference between say, a British and a French supermarket, other than a cheese section you can get lost in and a wine section that you need a satnav for.
Nevertheless to take the view that the French are just like the British has its perils and you can suddenly be caught out by the unexpected. So last Thursday heading to the UK for an 11:30 flight from Nice we left Taradeau just after eight almost embarrassed with the absolute certain knowledge that after the routine hour’s drive we would be sitting around in the airport departure lounge for ages. However by the time we got to the outskirts of Cannes it was obvious that the road was very clogged indeed. Our speed dropped from nearly 80 miles an hour to 60 then 40 and then an intermittent 10. Nothing daunted we pulled off the motorway with the intention of using the old coast road. That too however was oddly slow and soon barely miles from the airport we were merely inching along. We turned on the radio but the main news channel was on strike.
Suddenly we became aware of a line of police cars stopped in front of a massed array of taxis with slogans. It was a strike! And not just any old refusal to work but a full-scale blockade of the airport and various strategic motorway junctions by taxi drivers furious at the way that the smartphone app Uber had allowed anybody to be a taxi driver. The police, who were present in vast quantities, appeared to have decided that the only thing they could do was observe the situation and so they politely turned us away from the airport with – we are afraid to say – rather stereotypical Gallic shrugs of the shoulder. It wasn’t just that the airport was blockaded, but all the car parks too and the result was that cars were now parked on every available verge and hard shoulder and elegant ladies who would normally not have been seen dead on a flight with their lipstick and mascara awry, were sweatily dragging suitcases on foot to the airport in temperatures of over 30 degrees.
Eventually we made it to the airport periphery but it was clear from the solid wall of taxis that no one was getting in. We found a place to park about half a mile away and fully aware that we had now missed the flight walked in to the somewhat chaotic airport terminal. British Airways (bless them) didn’t bat an eyelid but put us on standby for the afternoon and the car park firm gave us the okay to put the car in a car park just outside the limits of the blockade rather than the one we had booked and paid for. So eventually we caught a mid-afternoon flight.
Given that striking appears to be a French national sport, it was inevitable sooner or later that we would get caught up in one. It was clearly a high temperature affair – in some places drivers were literally setting car tyres on fire. (Not, it has to be said, the wisest policy in an area where planes are trying to land.) We heard stories of some strikebreaking taxis at Nice being kicked and battered and apparently in Paris and elsewhere cars were set alight. But by the evening the government had caved in and effectively banned Uber. (Something it has to be said that the Germans have already done and the city of London is considering.)
Striking is so much part of French life that there is even a website which lists the strikes. (Just checking it has revealed that there is an autoroute strike tomorrow: something distinctly useful to know.)
It’s easy to mock this sort of thing. But ironically lurking behind the whole idea of striking is the rather optimistic belief that someone is going to listen to you and you may actually alter things. In a country like Britain there doesn’t seem a lot of point going on strike because everything of any size or value now seems to be owned by mysterious organisations who either don’t care about strikes or know they can combat them because they can replace everybody with cheap immigrant labour. As a French diplomat in Beirut once memorably remarked to Chris, “The problem with France is that it never had Mrs Thatcher: the problem with Britain is that it did.”