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For some, transport strikes have brought a whole new challenge to navigating Paris

Commuters fill a corridor in the Chatelet métro station in Paris on December 13, 2019 as France faces its ninth consecutive day of strikes against the government's pension reform plans.
Commuters fill a corridor in the Chatelet métro station in Paris on December 13, 2019 as France faces its ninth consecutive day of strikes against the government's pension reform plans. Benoit Tessier/REUTERS
Text by: Philippe THEISE
4 min

As the nationwide strike to protest the government’s pension reform plans enters its second week, lifelong residents of France have some experience in how to navigate the daily hassles in a city that has effectively stalled.  Working from home because trains and métros are cancelled, or biking long distances to work despite the rain and freezing temperatures become viable – if disagreeable – options.

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But for those who have moved here from abroad, the drastic reductions in rail, bus and métro service involved in a massive, lengthy and union-organised strike might come as something of a surprise. These newer French residents are riding out the strike – often literally on two wheels – with frustration, concern – and aplomb.

While respecting the right of the French to strike – and some 53 percent of French people back the strike or at least have sympathy for the workers' demands, according to a poll last Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper – some bemoan the inability of France to solve some of its most intractable problems.

Janel Siemplenski, 49, left the United States in 2000 to move to Paris, where she lives with her husband and two children. On Wednesday afternoon she was in the Chatelet métro station, where, like other commuters, she recorded video of the large numbers moving slowly through the passageways. 

“If anybody yelled ‘Fire!’,” she said, the result would have been tragic.

Siemplenski has a financial-sector job in Luxembourg, and so far she’s been able to work from home. Next week she will begin renting a car to drive across the border, which will lengthen her commute.

She has been meeting her 13-year-old daughter to accompany her on the 30- to 45-minute walk home from school. Her eldest, at 15, sometimes rides a bike, which takes at least 30 minutes each way.

“It worries me, every day, that she’s out in the traffic on her bike,” Siemplenski said.

For her part, Siemplenski, whose grandfather served as a union representative while working for a Chicago paper company and who represented a union herself in a previous job, worries that France cannot address what she views as necessary pension reform.

But she also raved about the collective calm in the Chatelet métro. “I’ve been absolutely stunned with how calm and amazing Parisians have been,” she said.

A tipping point for cycling culture?

As a veteran bicycle commuter in the Paris area, Tony Todd, 45, shares the roads with the thousands of local residents who have been filling the bike lanes of Paris.

Todd, who was born in France, moved to England as a child and returned as a 30-something adult, pedals regularly from his home in Asnières-sur-Seine to his job as a communications consultant in Saint-Denis, a route that takes him across the Seine and along part of Paris’s ring road.

“It’s good fun, as long as it’s not raining heavily,” he said.

French news outlets have noted the increase in Paris cyclists on or since the strikes started on December 5. Todd thinks the movement could signal “a tipping point for cycling culture”.

“All the people who own a bike in Paris are riding them,” he said. “I think it’ll stick.”

Recognising that “France is a country where the ability to speak out against authority is written in stone,” Todd said he respects protesters’ choice to strike. He says French people accept transit strikes the way the British accept inclement weather: as just a part of life.

Raining on cyclists' parades

Denise Landveld, 37, also cycles to her job as a server at Breakfast in America, a restaurant in Paris’s 4th arrondissement (district). In her native Holland, Landveld is accustomed to wide bicycle lanes and comfortable riding, and she’s noticed more cars in Paris since the strike began.

“When I bike in Paris, my attention is 100 percent on the traffic,” she said.

At work, she’s heard regulars voice various sentiments about the strike.

“They understand that the strikes are ongoing, even though [the transit interruptions] might bother them personally,” she said.

Landveld also said she hopes the labour action will lead to dialogue between the opposing sides. 

She estimates that she was biking about two hours a day before the strike, so the loss of regular transit service only affects her when it’s raining hard, or when she’s going out with friends or family.

She ordered an Uber for the first time when her sister was visiting Paris last weekend. Landveld didn’t want her to navigate the French capital in discomfort.

As a cyclist, she prefers fewer cars on the road, but “in this case, it felt like an emergency”.

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