Days like these I really wish I had a working camera.
Demonstrators must get up pretty early. When I got to the lycée around 9 this morning, the entrance had been barricaded with trash cans and makeshift plastic rope. Signs were taped up with the words “en grève” (on strike) scribbled over them.
A crowd of teachers and students were standing outside of the mess, not protesting, but just sort of loitering as if deciding what to do. I spoke with one of the school employees and he said that the teachers weren’t on strike, but maybe the students were.
Regardless of who starts it, when there’s a grève you still report to work until you’re told otherwise. So we ducked under the rope and sidled around the trash cans and through the front gate.
The schools in Nantes are built like fortresses. Besides most buildings being built of high, thick stone walls in the center of town, there is usually at least one set of doors and/or a gate that you have to get buzzed through to enter the premises. The windows to my school are double plated and have big interior wooden shutters pulled over them. After today, I think I know why.
I had an hour before class to prepare my lessons and check my email. So maybe just 10 minutes after I’d gotten in the building and was in the professor’s lounge, there were loud bangs against the windows. It sounded like rocks cracking into the glass. After the first vault, a couple teachers pulled open the shutters just a bit to peek out. After they closed them again there was another volley.
Fortunately, the rocks only broke the first pane of glass and never made it anywhere near those of us in the teachers’ lounge.
A few minutes later, there was smoke and some shouting outside by the entrance. Those trash cans that were barricading the entrance were now on fire.
I wasn’t scared because I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Was this normal? I knew that strikes and demonstrations were common but this seemed pretty extreme at a high school. Plus, this wasn’t happening across the street, or across the courtyard, this was taking place on the other side of the wall of the room I currently occupied. I probably looked more confused than frightened, as I was still just typing on the internet through the worst of it. But I also was just reading everyone else’s energy, which was alarmed but still calm. The firefighters and police were called and the fires put out.
One of my English professors, the only male teacher I happen to be working with who is a bit older and has a fondness of Ireland and Martin Scorsese films, kept chuckling every time he saw me, asking “Are you alright?” “Do you feel better?” as if this were no more than my first hazing into French culture. Bienvenue.
After the firefighters came and put out everything, I still had my morning class to teach. For whatever reason, the school was closed because of the riot, except for the handicapped students. I think perhaps that’s because school is the best place for them to be during the day? In any case, we had a pretty good class I think. What a difference Pictionary and candy make! I was the artist and I drew pictures of Halloween related vocab (pumpkins, witches, ghosts, etc.) on the board and then tossed out chocolate to the all-of-a-sudden very enthusiastic students. My teacher was impressed with my artistry skills and said I should involve that more in my lessons. Sweet!
Afterward, I had a two hour break before my next class so I decided to leave. Besides the huge wooden doors, now an extra exterior gate was up that needed another key to unlock it. Two barriers? Not a good sign.
When I stepped through I was greeted by the sight of garbage and half melted trash bins strewn about the sidewalk. After the fire and the subsequent putting out of fires, it was like a rainbow of offal scattered everywhere in front of the gates. The garbage-bags in Nantes are blue and yellow (trash and recyclables respectively) and make a cheerful combination when thrown haphazardly into the street. Amongst the grotesquely melted trash bins, it looked and smelt like the remnants of an urban battlefield.
I carefully sidestepped the rubbish and headed for home. I ran into at least two smaller manifestations happening at different parts of the city and knew it was pointless to wait for the tram.
When I went back to school later, it had been officially closed for the day. Dang. And I mean that. It made sense after the violent demonstration this morning, but it was still a disappointment not to get to teach this afternoon, especially after how well my first Halloween lesson went down. I was definitely looking forward to the others.
On the way home again, I saw that another high school close to my apartment was barricaded completely shut with trash cans. No fires set… yet, but plenty of high school students left to just sit or loiter in the street.
It doesn’t really make sense to me why high schools are targeted so forcefully during the strikes. I understand that education is where most of the reactionary elements take place, and that it’s usually the students who conduct the protests, but it seems a waste. Education ought to be the one thing besides the safety/health sector the government that should always be solid as a rock. I think it’s an important thing to keep running in the face of uncertain circumstances, so that students can continue to benefit, not only from a good education and a good example, but also a safe atmosphere.
But, with all of these demonstrations and marches, it keeps the walk home interesting. Like little parties springing up at random places on a map, I’m getting used to seeing neon-vest wearing manifest-ers, young and old, jubilantly waving their little symbols of rectitude.
The strikes and protests are in reaction to the national retirement age going up to 62 years old from 60, but I think that in general, most French love any reason for a manifestation. I haven’t had much experience with protests in America or anywhere else, but from what I’ve seen, the French have the art of protesting practiced to a tee. The participants are usually wearing some sort of matching neon vest or wind jacket, and waving carefully printed or thoughtfully written signs. There is usually a vehicle decked out with festive banners, parked or leading the participants on their path, and someone chanting over the system or blaring loud dance music. And the balloons, oh the balloons.
There was a huge manifestation this weekend that seemed more like a parade, and my friends and I were just sort of hanging out on the side of it, waiting for a break in the crowd to pass through, whilst rocking out to the international rap. If this were America, the only thing missing would be hot-dog stands and someone selling glitter wands and “I Survived Manifestation 2010” t-shirts.