Four Thousand Miles Across the Sea

Meghan McCallum

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the French, it’s that they know what they want and they aren’t afraid to fight for it. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that there’s a very specific strategy for a group to get a message across: the strike. There have been a few strikes in France lately, and I’m talking big strikes that affect everyone, even the unsuspecting American exchange students.Not including the recent strikes in France, I remember one strike actually affecting my life. It was a teachers’ strike when I was in maybe sixth grade, and I got a couple weeks off school. That was in Canada though, and we all know they’re crazy. Besides those two weeks when my parents made me “teach myself” for a few hours each day, I have never really noticed strikes and their effect on the general public.

So what kind of strike am I making such a fuss about, you ask? Well, first there was the SNCF strike, with which employees hoped to protect specific retirement options. SNCF is the French National Railway Company, so when there’s an SNCF strike it means that none of the trains function on their regular schedules. The Nantes tram system still ran, but all of the trains going to other cities were blocked.

The strangest thing, I thought, was that SNCF announced their strike well in advance. As long as a month beforehand, my host family had warned me against buying train tickets for that specific day because they knew about the strike. I happened to forget these warnings and bought tickets to visit some friends in Poitiers, so I paid for my bad choice later when I had to reschedule and buy a bus ticket. Throughout the day, SNCF workers could be seen marching through the streets of Nantes, chanting and handing out flyers.

The next big strike I encountered started last week at the Université de Nantes. When I arrived on campus Wednesday morning, I saw a huge sign attached to the side of a building that said, “Student Strike. General Assembly, Amphitheater C, 10:00 Wednesday.” My class that morning happened to be at 10:00 in Amphitheater C, so I was in luck. Instead of sitting down to a two-hour psychology lecture, I entered Amphitheater C to see tons of students, some smoking their cigarettes inside, gathering to discuss their strike.

The strike happened to affect my other class that day as well. When I approached the classroom where I usually have an afternoon literature course, I found every door in the building blocked with piles of tables and chairs, with students milling about and generally not learning. With more looking around, I saw spray paint and signs everywhere: on the ground, on sides of buildings-any spot that would catch the eye of passerby.

Within the past week, students at 16 different French universities have been on strike, blocking the classrooms to prevent students from learning and professors from teaching. The students’ general slogan in the strike is that “The University is not for sale!”

The French government has a plan in mind to make French universities more autonomous, which unfortunately for students would make them less affordable and more competitive concerning admissions. While similar to the university system in the U.S., this new plan would be drastic for the French, who currently enjoy their university education for a very small fee and who face no admissions offices — only a test at the end of high school that permits them to continue their schooling.

So while French university students are fighting to protect their school system, I have been spending less time in the classroom. Us IES students are urged to not participate in the student demonstrations, and while I agree with what the French students are fighting for I guess I don’t really want to get caught up in politics that I’m not 100 percent informed about. I am glad, though, that the students know how lucky they are to not have to pay $40,000 a year to go to school. That’s something worth striking for.