Letter from Paris: Hot Times for Seniors in Paris

by Keith Spicer

Planning to let loose on that long-dreamt getaway to the City of Light? You can probably handle sightseeing yourself with a good guidebook or, better, a professional guide, but here are a couple of July-August surprises to get you steaming: possible pollution-thick dog-days of sky-high temperatures, and that trusty  French specialty of transport strikes.

Paris in summer has always been a delightful time for me as a three-decades resident. Crowds have melted in must-see areas, everybody is cheerful with vacation memories or hopes; and you can spend uncounted hours sitting on park benches – either chatting with neighbors, or just savoring your good fortune today and in your past or future.

Prices are gentler too, as long as you avoid the gaudy tourist traps. One or two daytime strolls up or down the Champs-Élysées should suffice to give you that coveted thrill while avoiding the nighttime pickpockets and street thugs. Even after dark you can camp at a sidewalk café, drink in the colorful crowds, and sip a fine glass of anything you like, and that for as long as you want.

Thousands of cozy or grand restaurants stay open (except on August Sundays), almost never dispensing a bad meal.

None of this, can shield you from the burning,  lead-heavy pollution that can send you scooting for an air conditioner and a a cool drink  – preferably only a couple containing alcohol.

In August a huge artificial beach called Paris Plage will let you run through the spray of a fountain, dawdle with feet in water or doze under a huge parasol. Again sloshing back gallons of water.

That advice is standard anywhere, but Paris carries the historic reminder of 2015 COP 21 Paris – the world’s  first world agreement on climate change reduction.

Unimpressed? In late-July 2018 a serious UK study predicted that 70 percent of human beings now living would die of heat-related traumas by 2100.

Against this scare, transport strikes seem picayune. But when tens of millions of French run into state-coddled ‘public-service’ unions blocking trains, subways, buses and airplanes, you can be sure that several thousands of heart attacks and strokes follow missed appointments, jobs and family reunions. A consumers’ lobby is right now toting up a fact-based calculation of the grief. They don’t need to estimate the cost: official figures’ including lost tourism, run into billions of euros a year.

Fortunately for themselves, union leaders receive cushy, mainly secret grants to live well and to continue holding ordinary folks hostage. Chastely, the state’s  roughly 85-million-euro yearly unions payoff is called “financing social dialogue” – talks with management, but with no accounting. (Amazingly, owners’  groups also pay off their union tormentors).

Recently, a member of the National Assembly tried to get the government to confess to the full cost of bribing union leaders, notably the notoriously violence-minded and uncompromising CGT chiefs.

The government refused, warning that releasing such information would be provocative and divisive. So on will go the merry-go-round: massive strikes, like this summer’s train strikes. You couldn’t count on trains to roll, only the game to roll on: the sneaky trickery of forcing citizens to fund their own suffering.

The cherry on the cake: about 40 percent of French taxpayers remain sympathetic to street mobs’ demands. Why? Basically, because schools taught generation after generation to salute almost any mob waving red banners, chanting angry slogans and blowing whistles. The “street”’s fury symbolizes thumbing everybody’s nose at authority. Even from medieval and French Revolution times, crowds have loved to condemn whoever is on top.

Is France really union-crazy? Not quite: barely 7.5 percent of the entire workforce belongs to a union. But these are mainly transport workers with power to make massive public misery..

You can’t blame the unions for heat waves and pollution. But in labor relations, they can and will get tourists hot under the collar. Ruined holidays and repeated sudden stress can also cause serious health problems.

All the above is the downside of summertime Paris. The great stuff of high culture, beauty and fine food remains. As does the generally kind and courteous welcome by ordinary French people.

Remember these two tourist mantras: Forgetting dog days, pollution and cantankerous unions, “anytime is a good time to visit Paris.” And whatever else befalls you here, or in your hometown, Casablanca’s Ingrid Berman and Humphrey Bogart gave you these immortal lovers’ words: “We’ll always have Paris.”

The above piece appears simultaneously on the websites of Paris for Seniors and Almonte’s The Millstone.

Keith Spicer is a Canadian journalist and broadcaster who has lived in France for 22 years.