Power to the People or “L’arte de la manifestation”

My French teacher showed a video in class that satirized some of the stereotypes of “la vie française” among them the suggestion that the French are always either “on strike” or “on vacation”. Given my experiences over the last year I’d like to add “out protesting” to this list. Indeed, since moving to Paris I’ve been witness to more strikes and protests than I’d seen in my entire life back in Canada. I’m awestruck by the passion the French have for social activism.  Last week we had a day of rail strikes, a day of air traffic control strikes accompanied by another day of “sympathy” rail strikes all during a full week of school vacation. And to top it all off we had May 1 – Labour Day here in France and the perfect day for the airing of all sorts of “work-related-political-or otherwise” grievances! Grab a placard and protest something! Ooo-la-la what a week!

Sure the French like to complain or “râler”, after all they can be a grumpy lot and often feel hard-done by – or so the video from class would have me believe. But when it turns out that all these grumpy people are grumbling about the same thing well then, my friends, you have the makings of a grand “manifestation” (aka a protest) and it is in the art of the protest where the French really shine.   But then they’ve been practicing ever since the peasants attacked the Bastille prison in 1789. This uprising of the common classes against the aristocracy and clergy triggered the French Revolution and was a pivotal moment not only for France but for the world. It gave life to the phrase “power to the people” and has been fuelling social activism and revolutionary movements ever since.

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So what did it take to motivate the population to revolt?  In a nutshell, by the mid-late 1700’s the French government was almost bankrupt. The country was heavily indebted and the government been trying to tax its way to health on the backs of its people or, more specifically, the masses of already heavily taxed peasants. This wasn’t going so well. Not only had the peasantry been suffering through years of poor crops, by the 1780’s many were starving or dying of starvation -a loaf of bread cost almost a week’s wages at time! At the same time, the peasantry looked around at the privileged and luxurious lifestyles being enjoyed by the aristocracy, nobility and the clergy. There was clearly no demand to ‘tighten of the belt’ happening at this level of society in fact, the lavish spending of Marie Antoinette seemed to have no limits! Adding fuel to the fire, the nobility and clergy were already exempt from most forms of taxation. The peasants were expected to carry the burden of financial responsibility and they were becoming increasingly unhappy with this arrangement. They decided to revolt and acquired a large stock of weapons and then stormed the Bastille prison in search of ammunition that they knew was being kept there. Voilà, the revolution had begun.

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The French culture of social activism may have been born hundreds of years ago during the Revolution but the French people today still seem to thrive on a good “manifestation”. They really do believe in the power of the people and are not afraid to take on the challenge of trying to change the ways of government. For example, in recent months we’ve seen an increasing number of strikes and protests throughout the country fuelled in large part by proposed reforms to labour laws. The government asserts these changes are necessary to reduce the unemployment rate (hovering around 10%) and kick-start the economy.   Critics (among them union heads and workers) argue that the reforms will keep younger workers stuck in short term contracts, worsen working conditions and deter recruitment.  With such opposite points of view it seems obvious what’s needed: Strikes! Protests! Une grève! Une manifestation!

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We’ve also been living with another type of social activism lately: “nuit début”, the French equivalent to the “Occupy” movement that gripped New York City.  For over a month nowt groups of mostly young people have been occupying and spending each night in Place de la République.  Their numbers have ranged from the 10’s to the 100’s and, by some estimations, the 1000’s. For the most part the groups arrive before dusk and leave around dawn. There are different groups representing different causes but the overriding similarity is that everyone wants “change” of some sort – although it’s not always clear which agenda is leading the cause. The leaders of the many groups present their cause during nightly presentations. Then there’s singing, drinking and further political discussion. For the most part these events have been peaceful and I noticed on the nuit débout website (https://nuitdebout.fr/) that they’re now trying to become more organized.

One afternoon at Place de la Republique

And finally there was a particularly great manifestation I watched a couple of weeks ago.  It involved people owning older cars and motorcycles.

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Beginning July 1 the government has ruled that all cars and bikes registered before 1997 will be banned from Paris streets during the weekday as part of an effort to cut pollution (at times the pollution in the centre of Paris can measure worst than that of Beijing!). The owners of these older cars and motorcycles are clearly not happy with this new law and an uprising was in order! Thousands joined in this noisy protest throughout the streets of Paris late in the day one Sunday.  I videoed the protest for over 10 minutes but my battery died before the manifestation ended.

I wonder if the motorcycle-riding police escorts were actually participating in the protest or supervising it?

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Although I’m all in favour of reducing the number of cars and bikes within the city I still stood and watched the entire “parade” because it was…well, simply fascinating and fun.

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What I admire about these protests is both how seriously they are taken by people and how well organized they generally are. I mean, the French believe in the right to protest and they love rules so I guess it makes sense. The protests are well publicized, have police escorts, great signage and the protestors even sometimes have custom t-shirts made! They are also generally (though not always) peaceful and have been successful in the past at bringing about modifications, if not completing overthrowing, government plans.

I think we could all learn a thing or two from the French about believing in the power of the people. We shouldn’t be afraid to stand together for a cause, to fight things we feel are wrong and to debate changes to our social or political landscape. Maybe we all just need to get a little grumpier, together.

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