It was the monday before Christmas break, le vacance de noel, and I had taken the train to Rochefort. I usually don’t work on Monday’s, but a little re-shuffling of my emploi de temps was necessary because I was taking a day trip to Versailles on Tuesday.
My college professor, Alain (charmingly French with an eccentric mustache to match his equally eccentric personality), had invited to me to make up my Tuesday afternoon class on Monday afternoon and I had prepared a class on Christmas. Vocabulary notes, flashcards, and a few ‘holly jolly’ Christmas carols in tow, I made my way from the Rochefort train station to the school building, first passing the lycee.
And that’s when I saw the spray painted sheets. And then the yellow construction tape. And then the mob of students in the midst of which was a petite, confused looking french teacher. Apparently, she hadn’t gotten the message that the students had decided to go on strike. And it turns out I hadn’t either.
They had barricaded the doors with those wooden platforms that you find at loading dock warehouses, defiantly not going to class, playing their guitars and, of course, smoking. Now, in a way, this didn’t surprise me. Rewind only two weeks earlier and you’d find me and Mary, making our way to the train station in La Rochelle only to be overcome by a mob of teenagers, storming the streets, flooding the train platforms with pamphlets and literature. Their fliers said something about ‘educational reforms’ so I guess I should have realized it was only a matter of time before little Rochefort got caught up in the momentum.
To be completely honest, I didn’t really care – I was intrigued, but not invested. Until the repas de noel, the Christmas-dinner lunch, was canceled. And then I was annoyed. My first (and who knows? Possibly only) French Christmas meal had been scraped because my students refused to go to class. So I started asking questions.
First: Why? The French Ministry of Education had made a few reforms that the students didn’t agree with. They were removing teaching positions, and suggested changing some of the requirements for the students. Although, I recently found out that they weren’t actually implemented, just recommended, but still. It doesn’t hurt to let ‘the man’ know you don’t like where he’s going with those crazy ideas.
Second: How? How in the world did all of these students mobilized with such efficiency and organization? This wasn’t just a Rochefort/La Rochelle situation, but a national greve; all the lycee students, in all of France were up in arms. And then I found out that the students are in a union. Talk about something that could never translate into American culture.
And finally: “Do you feel like you made a difference?” My older students, the Senior-year equivalents, said ‘yes!’ They were the most involved, some traveling to neighboring towns to rally the students. And then there was my sweet student, in the younger lycee class, who looked at me, rolled her eyes and said with a little sigh ‘no.’
I spent a lot of time thinking about this. A little confused and a little piqued, I thought “who do they think they are?” But talking to them, my opinion has changed to some extent. I’m realizing that in this country, if you are upset, you let people know. You take action – just look at the frequency at which they strike, or protest - and you don’t remain complacent. And while this has also resulted in a healthy fear of middle-aged french ladies (they also refuse to be complacent when they're upset…) it has also stirred up some admiration. But maybe only until those trains stop running. Again.