John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

In it together? On car-clogged boulevards, selfishness rules
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The Independent Online

The Dunkirk Spirit – "we are all in this together" – is not something that appeals to Parisians. The rail and Métro strike, now entering its fifth day, has been received with a kind of sullen anger. There is no cheerful banter, no camaraderie.

On Métro platforms, everyone looks glum and ignores everyone else. On the car-clogged streets, selfishness rules. Scenes from a transport strike.

An entire street of blocked cars blow their horns in frustrated chorus. A tiny, elderly woman appears on her first-floor balcony. She screams down: "Imbeciles, shut up."

A packed Métro train arrives at a packed station platform. The crowd tries to storm the train before passengers can get out. (This is fairly normal Parisian behaviour but it has been worse than usual this week.) There is shoving and screams of: "We are not cattle." A fight breaks out. The train, one of the few still in service, has to be cancelled. Everyone ends up on the platform.

The new Parisian self-service bicycle hire service, Velib, has proved a useful strike-breaker. In the early morning mist, before the boulevards fill up with immobile, hooting cars, Paris has come to look like Amsterdam or Cambridge.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the city, there are not enough bikes to go around. This is a Parisian problem for which Parisians have found a typically Parisian solution: the bike chain. The bicycles stand in computerised racks. When you have finished with a bike, you put it back in the nearest rack and your hire fee is charged automatically to your credit card. It is very cheap to hire a Velib for an hour; very expensive to hog one for a day.

On several occasions this week, my son, a practised "Velibbeur", lifted a bike from an official rack and found it had been chained in place. It had been unofficially "reserved", without costing the other Velibbeur anything.

Parisians – and the police – have been at their worst on the roads. On Wednesday night, I tried to drive a friend to the Gare du Nord. He had come from London on the first Eurostar from St Pancras in two hours and 15 minutes. It took us 90 minutes to drive three kilometres from my office to just beyond Pigalle. He walked the last kilometre.

The traffic was even worse on Thursday and Friday. None of this was necessary. There are no box-junction markings in Paris. Parisian drivers refuse to accept that moving forward en masse and blocking large intersections is not a sensible way of driving. The southbound traffic jams the eastbound traffic; so the eastbound traffic jams the southbound traffic.

At the Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement, six streets and avenues converge. The traffic became so tangled on Friday night that not a car was able to move for 90 minutes.

One motorist telephoned the police. Shouldn't they consider doing something? "What do you want us to do?" the policeman said at the other end. "The whole city is the same."

Yes, but it need not have been. A policeman at each of 20 or 30 strategic intersections would have kept the city moving. I didn't see a single policeman on traffic duty all week.

Someone suggested that this was a deliberate ploy by the government to build up anger against the strikers. More likely, it is just the usual laziness and fecklessness of the Paris police.

The strike goes on ...