Zut Alors! Parisians Pick Survival Over Chanel

Transit strike forces French to gulp pride, ditch heels, and don sneakers

FOR the last three weeks on the streets of Paris, it's been au revoir elegance, bonjour survival.

The great transit strike of 1995 is almost spent, but the changes it has wrought in couture and conveyance may last well for years.

Call it "strike chic." The new look is a heavy sweater, a coif-crushing knit cap, sneakers, a backpack, mittens, and - for cyclists and skaters - a surgical mask, wrapped in a woolen scarf. (Paris, chockablock with commuters' cars, now rivals Mexico City in air pollution.)

A Chanel suit and strappy little pumps may be fine for lunch two blocks away from the office. But with public transport disruptions expected to continue this week, many Parisians still face four-hour commutes, on foot and in the dark. Dressing for success now means just making it home.

Gone is that scarcely concealed contempt stylish Parisian women once had for their New York sisters, who ruin the line of their power suits by walking city streets in aerobic sneakers and scrunched-down sweat socks.

Paris take note: It was the 1970s New York transit strike that first sent women digging into their gym bags for help getting to work. Decades later, many still stride down Fifth Avenue on rubber treads.

"I have to take an early lunch today," explains a stylish woman at the French foreign ministry. "I've got to buy some thicker shoes and a backpack."

Last week, the daily newspaper Liberation confirmed what every Parisian already had figured out: You can cross the city on foot just about as fast as in a car.

Fastest way across the city: the mobylette (mini-motorbike) at 22 minutes vs. 33 minutes for a bicycle, 80 for a car, and 140 for the government's new waterbus service on the Seine.

Mobylettes were standard issue for French students in the 1970s. Narrower than a full-scale motorcycle, they proved perfect for threading through gridlock. "I never gave up on the mobylette, even after they closed the last plant in France and moved it to Hungary," says a veteran of the 1968 Paris strikes, just before breezing through a jammed Paris intersection. "I'd ordered the newest model before this strike started, and now I go anywhere."

Until the transit strike, Parisian pedestrians faced only three dangers on their sidewalks: small dogs, parked cars, and moving cars aspiring to become parked cars. Enter Rollerbladers.

The city's new skaters seem less interested in being seen than in getting home. Whoever sold them the skates apparently didn't tell them about how to stop.

Some novice skaters resolve such technique gaps by holding on to the back of a bicycle. But even just tottering along a sidewalk or slamming into a wall, skaters are a daunting new presence on the commuting scene.

Another mode of transport the strike brought back in fashion: hitch-hiking, or le stop. Raymond Baulet hadn't been able to get to his job in a Paris for a week until a friend suggest he try his thumb.

"I'd never hitchhiked before," says Mr. Baulet, who is close to retirement. "I was picked up right away by two managers. They were nice to me, and we talked all the way into the city. I'd never talked to people like that before."

Conversation may be the most valuable legacy of the strike. Paris is losing its traditional places to talk, such as its cafes. Parisians are moving too fast to stop and chat, experts say. Not during the transit strike.

"I've seen lots of things in this city that I haven't seen in years, lots of bicycles, hitch-hiking," says Jean Francois Gancel, a social worker in a Paris suburb. "People seem to be talking to each other again."

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