What a week it was for Paris

Taxi camaraderie and public-spirited drivers? In France? It must be a strike. Mary Dejevsky gets the measure of the demonstrators
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The Independent Online
Paris is a city of 3 million people that has had virtually no - or as the French are saying, "quasiment nul" - public transport of any kind for the past seven days. From a supposed 20 per cent of buses and 10 per cent of Metro trains running last Friday, the numbers have dwindled to the point where there are no suburban trains, no Metro trains and a bare "1 per cent" of buses.

I was fortunate yesterday. A taxi came my way, an empty one, that is. With no shortage of work and impossible road conditions a new camaraderie has grown up among the viciously competitive taxi drivers. They joke to each other and their passengers about how long a 20-minute journey now takes. An hour, two hours; even four hours at rush-hour - or rather during the rush hours: 5 to 10 in the morning; 4 till 9 in the evening. That's how long it is taking the traffic to clear.

Improbable things are happening on the pavements. Not only are there hordes of bicycles and mopeds - hire shops report that they have none left - there are also more than a few desperate cars.

Then there are the pedestrians. Parisians and regular commuters seem remarkably unfamiliar with their own city. In normal times, perhaps, they just get on their Metro line and emerge near their workplace with no idea of what goes on above them in between. Now you see people frantically studying the little local maps at bus stops. I have been repeatedly asked directions, and mostly not by foreigners, for such familiar landmarks as the Eiffel Tower ("You see, I live quite close to it," said an expensively dressed man, setting off again at a brisk pace when I told him) and the rue du Rivoli (from an equally well-dressed woman who seemed convinced that she was on the left, rather than the right, bank of the Seine).

But after a week, there are signs that even the individualistic French are getting themselves organised. Hotlines have been set up for would- be car sharers; you can key in a code to the computerised phone book and information service, Minitel, to find lifts. The occasional parked car has a note on its windscreen from the public-spirited driver saying when he intends to set off and where he will be going.

Some firms have cut-price arrangements with local hotels to take whatever empty rooms they have at the end of the day; others - but not many - have laid on coaches.

Over the past week, though, the majority of coaches in Paris have not been commuter services, nor even tour buses, but "specials" hired by trade unions to transport their demonstrators to the capital. The students a week last Tuesday, six unions last Friday, another two on Tuesday, gas and electricity workers yesterday, and the students again... When intending to watch or even participate in a French demonstration there are two crucial points to bear in mind. The first is that it is bound to start late - by an hour or two, especially if there is no local transport for those who are not bus-borne; the second is that the plumes of smoke you see from a distance are not, as you might think, smoke bombs thrown by demonstrators or tear gas released by the riot police. No, the smoke comes from a legion of hot-dog barrows grilling Merguez sausages and kebabs for the hungry demonstrators.

While trade in boutiques and department stores languishes, the barrowboys with their baguettes and grills are raking in the cash. But this doesn't mean their customers will eat just any sausage. In Paris, even demonstrators are choosy. "No, not that one," I heard one marcher, plastered with union stickers, object. "I want it well done, please."