As part of my ongoing (and mostly futile) effort to learn French, I listen to Radio France International’s “Journal en Français Facile” podcast every day. It’s an excellent way to catch up on the news while learning useful phrases like “black tide” and “civil unrest.”
Ah, I can just imagine myself walking into a small épicerie in Paris … “Bonjour, madame. Tell me, please … do you have any civil unrest? Oh, yes—and I also need a liter of black tide.”
As it turns out, yesterday it was my friends at RFI who were experiencing a bit of civil unrest: When I tuned into the podcast this evening, the familiar greeting had been preempted.
En raison d’un mot d’ordre de grève, le journal en français facile n’a pas été diffusé. Veuillez nous en nous excuser.
“Because of a strike order, the news in easy French wasn’t broadcast. Please excuse us.”
Instead of the news, I got three protest songs: First, a passionate Basque lament with flamenco guitar accompaniment. The second song was a Bob Marley-style fight song, sung in French. “I may be alone, but I know how to defend myself,” sang the man. And incongruously, the third was some American pop relic from the 1960s (or at least a skillful imitation).
The funny thing is, no one thought to mention what they were protesting. How can I sympathize if I don’t know what they’re protesting?!
Strikes in France are common, of course. In the past week magistrates and teachers have walked off the job. Before that, sanitation workers sat idle for three weeks. Before that we had last year’s general strikes over the change in retirement age.
And now there’s no news.
For me, one of the biggest paradoxes about the French is their propensity for protest—the smallest grievance can incite calls for revolution—yet they’re downright docile about enduring the inconveniencing effects of those protests.
I vividly remember being in Paris during a transit slowdown in 2009. The métro cars were packed to the rafters, because the trains weren’t running regularly. And even the conductors who were driving were protesting.
Some were just idling at the stations. But my conductor took a much more active approach, voicing his discontent by slamming the brakes at every stop. I was half amused, half annoyed every time I’d watch that sea of heads lurch forward.
At one point, I lost my balance and fell against one of my fellow passengers. “Desolée,” I apologized. He simply shrugged, and said without a hint of emotion, “Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?” What are you gonna do?
As I drove home tonight, it struck me as ironic that my (absent) French lesson should actually serve as a cultural lesson instead: Rather than feel put out and inconvenienced, I simply shrugged and listened to the music instead.
Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?