French Friday #16: Faisons la Grève!

Today, I’m going to write about something dear to the hearts of the French people. No, it’s not wine. Or cigarettes. Or even racy billboards. This is something particularly revered and even perfected in French society. It’s… the strike. After the recent teachers’ strike here in Tacoma, I knew I’d have to dedicate a French Friday to this most cherished Gallic right.

First, a little history and etymology. When you visit Paris today, you’ll notice the nice walkways built along the river Seine (and folks, let’s just get this out of the way: It’s pronounced “sehn.” Not “sin” and most definitely not “sain.” Don’t hurt my ears). These are a fairly recent addition to the city considering that the banks were left in their original sandy state for centuries. Wikipedia gives a convoluted explanation of the origin of the name Seine, but, ignoring all that mess, there is the basic fact that the word seine in French refers to a fishing net, which gives some indication of activity on the Seine in times past. There are still a few brave souls who fish from the river within Paris, but most people won’t touch that water or anything that lives in it. The second bit of word-learnin’ goes back to those formerly sandy banks, which are called grève in French.

The city seal of Paris features a boat indicating how important river commerce was to the city's livelihood.

In front of the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) was a particularly wide area opening down to the river. Boats often unloaded here and dayworkers would gather in the hopes of finding a job or two. To this day, it is called Place de Grève, although there’s not a trace of sand left and you can barely see the river from there anymore thanks to the road and walls along the banks.

View of the Hôtel de Ville from the Ile de la Cité

But, way back when, it was an ideal meeting place. The Ile de la Cité — the geographical and emotional heart of the city — is directly across from the Place de Grève, which, as we already know, was a great location for unloading shipments from river traffic straight into the center of the city. Naturally, several city functions would take place here, establishing the seat of city government since 1357. Everything from customs to executions occurred in the Place de Grève, including the airing of grievances by labor unions and guilds, otherwise known as a strike (“grievance” and “grève” have no etymological connection, but the similarities may help you remember what it’s all about!). Eventually, the phrase “faire la grève” became standard linguistic shorthand for that idea of laborers joining together to demand better pay or working conditions. In fact, it has nearly supplanted the original meaning of the word: when the French hear “grève,” they don’t think of a sandy strand on the river.

My brother and me at the Place de Grève, where the Hotel de Ville plead the city's case for both the 2012 Olympics and the release of Ingrid Betancourt

Off and on throughout the varying regimes of the 19th and 20th centuries, striking was made illegal. Finally, after WWII, a law was passed ensuring the right to strike and the French make ample use of that right. There are even entire websites devoted to the strike du jour so that you’ll know how your life will be affected. We experienced a few transportation strikes during our time there. It always amused us how strikes mysteriously occurred on sunny days. And even funnier was when a completely unrelated industry went on strike because they wanted a day off too as a show of solidarity. Striking truly is a way of life in France. Often the demands were more akin to grumblings and little negotiation was required. After a day or two, everyone would be back at work and the general populace never really heard the outcome of the strike. And I would venture to say that most people didn’t care, just so long as their train was running and their garbage was getting picked up.

The Place de Grève is still multi-functional. We watched a Euro Cup soccer game with thousands of other people on large screens set up at either end; we were there again when a collective groan of disappointment swept over the crowd when London was announced as the site for the 2012 Olympics. In the summer there is a double-decker carousel set up on one end. In the winter, they ice over part of the place to form a skating rink. And yes, people still meet there to faire la grève.

Winter wonderland is the antithesis of the beheadings that used to take place here.


2 thoughts on “French Friday #16: Faisons la Grève!

    • You’re an original, then. I’ve never heard anyone mispronounce it that way, although I could see where you get it from. Actually, I think that would pain me less than the “sain” version.

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