Every few days, I ride my bike from my apartment near the Louvre to Paris’ 6th arrondissement, just across the Seine River. It’s a short, 10-minute ride, and it’s usually the most enjoyable slice of my day — a chance for me to space out on SoundCloud and think Deep Thoughts. But I also leave my place around 5PM, which means that for some stretches, I have to weave in and out of the early rush hour bottleneck. It’s always worst along the three-lane road that runs along the right bank, just in front of a tree-lined sidewalk full of tourist-trap book stands.
But this afternoon was a little different. My lane was full of the buses and bicycle rickshaws I normally share it with, but I didn’t see a single taxi — no silver cars racing to overtake me or making abrupt stops to pick up passengers. And it was great.
I wasn’t all that surprised, because I knew that every taxi was on strike today to protest against Uber. Early this morning, Paris’ taxi unions launched what they call a "snail" operation, which basically involves a bunch of cars forming a blockade along major highways to halt all traffic. It’s the same stunt they pulled last January, during another anti-Uber strike, but this time things escalated quickly.
With all the images of burning tires and overturned cars that flooded Twitter this morning, you could be forgiven for thinking that Paris had suddenly turned into a war zone — or "Baghdad," as Courtney Love so eloquently put it during a strange Twitter rant this morning. But the truth is that aside from my unusually roomy bike ride, things inside the city were surprisingly normal. Tourists were still gawking with their selfie sticks, and cafes were still full of the usual happy hour smokers, staring out at nothing in particular.
This is France — there's always someone on strike
That’s because all the Grand Theft Auto stuff on Twitter and TV was largely relegated to the outskirts — either along the peripherique highway that encircles Paris, or at its two major airports, both of which are a good 45 minutes outside of the city. Fatigue may also explain it. This is France, after all — there’s always someone on strike.
But this wasn’t just another strike. In the seven years I’ve lived here, I don’t remember ever seeing a protest turn as violent as quickly as this one did. And only in extreme, prolonged circumstances do strikes lead every major newscast.
Maybe that’s because the symbolism behind this strike was so impossible to ignore. Most work stoppages here are launched over relatively arcane disputes — pension plans, work hours, that sort of thing. Rarely do they so brazenly confront France’s economic ideology. This was the big-swinging-dick of Silicon Valley disruption running head-first into the Kafkaesque monolith that is French bureaucracy.
It had all the makings of a cataclysmic collision, and it certainly produced fireworks. But nothing really changed. A group of workers with very legitimate gripes decided to take a stand against what they see as unfair business practices — UberPop drivers don’t have to pay the nearly $300,000 license fee that every other cab driver does — and they did it in aggressive, sometimes violent fashion. Maybe it backfired, maybe it forced the state to take action. What really matters is that the issue will now be decided by The System, which is exactly how things always are in France.
Head first into the monolith of French bureaucracy
As I was walking back from Luxembourg Gardens later this evening, I walked past a taxi stand in front of the Boulevard St. Germain. It was empty save for a single, silver cab that was parked with its driver-side door swung open. The engine was off, and the driver was sitting with one leg perched on the curb, listening to the radio. I approached him and asked if the strike would run through tomorrow.
"I’m waiting for the news," he replied gruffly, gesturing to his radio. He said he’d participated in today’s strike, but declined to elaborate further. He looked very tired.
"Right now it doesn’t seem like there will be a strike," he said. "But I’m sure there will be more things to come."