Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Saturday, 23 October 2010 11:27 UK

What would Americans think of the French strike?

French workers on strike, Marseille, France
Over a million people have taken part in protests against pension reforms

By Matthew Price
BBC News, France

The widespread protests against the French government's plans to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62 are part of a wider battle about the future of French society and how much the government spends to support the poor.

I am going through a little bit of culture shock.

For the last three years I have been based in the US. And the only protests I have covered, the only ones vocal enough to have been worth reporting on, have been angry mobs demanding the government stop spending and get out of their lives.

Now, just one week into my new role as Europe correspondent, I am faced with angry mobs demanding the exact opposite - an end to government cut backs and a promise that the state will continue to provide for them.

Talk about a change of scene.

Oil tankers queuing outside Marseille port, France
Oil tankers have been stranded outside Marseille for weeks

The Americans could never stomach - or indeed even understand - what has been happening in Marseille.

The stench of rotting oranges, old coffee grounds and the occasional soiled nappy, sticks in the nose as you walk through the narrow lanes of the old city.

And every day that the rubbish collectors remain on strike, the piles of overflowing black bags and cardboard boxes grow ever higher.

Wind your way past them and down to the port where 1,000 stylish yachts bob quietly, and look out across the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean, and you will see more evidence of these strikes - the oil tankers anchored offshore waiting for port workers to return to their posts.

Then there are the petrol stations - the bright red covers strapped over the pumps which tell you they are "hors service" - out of service.

Out of petrol to be more accurate. The strike is taking its toll.

Will the French people finally get back what the workers want - a government that sees its main purpose as being to look after the citizens?

But what Americans would also perhaps not understand, is how despite this slap in the collective face, everyday life is not on hold.

Basically, it is to be expected here.

"It's France - it's normal, huh?" one man shrugged before heading off back to work.

Another, having found a petrol station with supplies said he had to drive around the city a bit, but it was okay.

In fact, for a city that has been deemed the epicentre of French union militancy, there was not at first much evidence of it.

Yes, there was the rubbish, and the thought in the back of your mind that you might run out of petrol, but where were the picket lines?

Road blocks

For three glorious hours, I drove along the coast looking for strikers and watching the wind surfers zip across the sea.

At one junction leading to a fuel storage depot, a sun-tanned policeman and his swaggering colleagues told me there had been a protest earlier but they had closed it down.

Piled up rubbish in Marseille, France
Rubbish has been piling up on the streets of Marseille

Eventually I ended up at a Total refinery, which I knew to have been having problems.

Even here - no picket. Just the wind whipping across the massive empty car park out the front and a sign tied across the gates - "plant on strike".

The next day though came word of a shut down at the airport. Strikers had blocked the road to the terminal.

This sounded more like it. A proper bit of "argey bargey a la Francaise" surely?

Well, not by the time I had made it there.

Within an hour or so, the strikers had forced perhaps 100 or so people to abandon their hire cars a short walk from the terminal, and then cleared off.

Airport in disarray - job done.

'Personal responsibility'

Some hours later, I received a call from the main train station.

A group had plonked themselves on the tracks in front of a TGV bound for Paris.

They shouted for a bit, but again soon vanished. Lightning strikes, I guess you could call them.

PROPOSED PENSION REFORMS
Raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018
Raise the security contributions qualification from 40.5 to 41.5 years
Raise the age pensioners can receive a full state pension from 65 to 67

The big question, of course, is where all this is leading?

Is this indeed the big social movement that the unions say it is, a movement that in true revolutionary style will end with the overthrow of the court of Sarkozy?

Will the French people finally get back what the workers want - a government that sees its main purpose as being to look after the citizens?

My sense is the answer is twice, "Non".

And indeed, most French know the world has changed since the days of the all-embracing welfare state.

They know the age of austerity inevitably implies an age of personal responsibility.

And personal responsibility is something the Americans I have lived among for the last three years have adopted as a way of life.

I am reminded of a trip I took with a truck driver - named DuWayne - from Wisconsin. One thousand kilometres (600 miles) into an epic ride across the states, he mentioned the French lorry drivers' proclivity to strike.

"We'd never do that here," DuWayne proudly told me. "We work hard."

And it is true - they do.

One year he spent 352 days on the road, in order to pay the bills.

I told him that the French strike to protect their working conditions, which were far better than anything he had ever known.

He looked at me, shocked, as if to say, "You mean the French have it better than us?"

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