PARIS -- For Sophie Malibucks, the low point of waiting in line for an iPhone 5 came when the Paris weather turned cold in the earliest hours the day before the autumnal equinox.
"At one in the morning, I started freezing and shaking," she said as she emerged from Apple's Opera store with a brand-new black 64GB iPhone 5. The Parisian had waited in line since yesterday afternoon and didn't get a wink of sleep. "We helped each other. We said, 'In 16 hours, we will forget it,'" she said.
Why upgrade from an iPhone 4S that's just a year old? "It's bigger, and it's faster, and because it's Apple."
She was among hundreds who lined the sidewalks and streets outside Apple's flagship store in Paris, winding their way through a labyrinth of metal barriers. The novelty of queueing up for the latest iPhone or iPad is wearing off, with the ritual now in its sixth year and Apple's crowd-control skills now well developed.
"It was an awesome experience," said Anthony Fitch, an Italian who drove from Rome to Paris to buy the iPhone 5, became the first person in line when he arrived Wednesday, and eventually was the first iPhone 5 buyer at the store. "I was born Apple," he said.
CNET will blog the iPhone 5 arrival in the United States today. And just west of the International Date Line, Australians already have had iPhone 5 models in hand.
In France, the iPhones cost 679 euros, 789 euros, or 899 euros for unlocked 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB models. That's $881, $1,024, and $1,167 at today's exchange rates. The new model has a significantly longer screen, a faster processor, higher-speed LTE networking, and other features.
But LTE networking is largely irrelevant for European buyers today. Fitch was anxious for mobile network operators to add LTE service, and Malibucks said she'd pay extra for the services.
"It's a very awesome technology, and we're looking forward to having it as soon as possible," Fitch said.
An hour after the Paris store's doors opened, new arrivals were still joining the end of the line, shuffling along, gazing occasionally at the gilded statues of Paris' opera house, and flinching at a bus horn blasted to clear the road of pedestrians walking around the line.
Parisian Zenghui Li arrived at 9 a.m. to replace his iPhone 3GS with a 32GB iPhone 5. He was undaunted by the fact that about 700 people were ahead of him.
Standing on a soapbox
And with a small horde of photographers, reporters, and TV news cameras, it's also a good place to lodge a protest.
At Apple's store at Opera, a couple dozen people from two separate groups came to raise a stink about Apple: the Solidaires Unitaires Democratiques (SUD) union vying for better benefits and eBizcuss a retailer of Apple products that closed down its business in July after alleged ill treatment by Apple.
SUD Secretary Laurent Degousee said the union is seeking little things -- rest breaks for employees, drinking water, and vouchers to pay for meals at restaurants. "Eating in Paris -- it's very expensive," he said.
Oh, and one more demand: a 13th month of pay at the end of the year that serves as a bonus of about 8 percent. That would mean a substantial increase in payroll expenses for Apple, but both the extra month's pay and restaurant vouchers are common employment benefits in France.
About 40 employees were striking, Degousee said, though they were staying out of the way or staying home altogether. And he claimed some progress: after employees started wearing protest wristbands, Apple agreed to the restaurant vouchers.
"It's a small victory, but it's a victory," he said.
It's a good moment to try to drum up membership in the union. Only 8 percent of employees in France are members, he said, and only 2 percent of retail employees. At Apple, a retailer still new to France, employees tend to be young and to be Apple fans.
"They have a particular relationship with the company. They're really attached, but then they realize it's not so great after all," Degousee said.
He had a box full of leaflets, each bearing the title, "Apple en Greve -- La pomme de la discorde." That translates to "Apple on strike -- the apple of discord. (If that phrase sounds familiar, it's a reference to the golden apple of Greek mythology that led Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena to fight over who was most beautiful -- a fight that led to the Trojan War.)
Out of work
Another person at the store but not buying an iPhone 5 was Leon Fok, an eBizcuss accountant who's now out of work. He and other former employees formed a small group of protesters on the sidelines of the Apple event, airing their complaints with the aid of a bullhorn.
Their company had sold only Apple products for 20 years, with 120 employees at stores in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, and Toulouse. But things changed when Apple opened its own stores.
"They treat us like a real competitor," he said. Apple didn't deliver enough products for the store to sell and wouldn't deliver software at all. Instead, eBizcuss employees had to go to Apple stores, buy the software there, then bring it back and sell it again.
Renewing its business contract with Apple grew steadily harder. Apple required major remodeling, such as widening windows and raising ceilings so there's at least 1.5 meters of space above customers' heads, Fok said.
Four months ago, shortly before it went out of business, eBizcuss sued Apple over the problems, but Fok doesn't seem to be counting on winning. He said he's now looking for a new job.