Above Photo: Protests: a French way of life? Laurent Troude/Libération1
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Have you ever lived with a partner you loved very much and with whom life would be perfect – if only they could … change?
That’s how the French feel about their government.
Like all couples, we go through phases of intense resentment. Sure, there are good years, not to mention a lifetime of memories built together. But there are also month-long fights filled with poisonous accusations hurled at the enemy until both parties collapse on the floor, exhausted.
Worst of all, there’s never any marriage counsellor in sight. The therapist’s couch – which ought to be our parliament – seldom works to resolve serious arguments.
And so, once in a while, the French people take to the streets to express their anger. It’s the only way they know how to feel heard. Sometimes, they win and when they do, it’s always a huge triumph that makes them feel powerful and vindicated – at least long enough to keep going until the next big fight without considering a divorce (or another revolution).
This tactic worked for a long time. In recent years, however, there have been clear signs that massive protests may no longer work.
Off with their heads!
Back in 1789, France, with Louis XVI at its helm, was drowning in debt. The royal entourage’s extravagant spending (including Marie Antoinette’s excesses), coupled with the American war of independence (during which France had allied itself to the US at great financial cost) meant the country was in dire straits.
Taxes were imposed on France’s commoners, while both the nobility and the clergy enjoyed tax exemptions. A population already crushed by mandatory tithing, poor harvests and the rising price of commodities such as flour was about to snap.
On 14 July 1789, violence erupted in a way that changed France’s fate forever. The Bastille prison, a symbol of the monarchy, was captured (the Marquis de Sade, known for his fervent defence of free speech and sadistic proclivities, was one of the inmates). The king was beheaded three and a half years later.
Feudalism was abolished. The declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen was proclaimed, followed by the country’s first constitution. This was the catalyst for the complete rebirth of France.
The legacy of the guillotine
The ghosts of monarchists who died under the guillotine haunted generations of politicians to come; the wrath of the French populace was to be feared and respected. To this day, many argue it was the way it should be: a government should listen to its subjects, and fear reprisals if it ever scorns them.
This bloody inheritance carried on in many forms. The second French revolution, known as Les Trois Glorieuses, saw the overthrow of King Charles X, only to be replaced by another monarch, Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Less than 20 years later, he too would be forced to step down.
La Commune, another insurrection led by the working classes which lasted more than two months in 1871, planted the seeds of women’s emancipation, freedom of the press, and the principle of laicité in schools and government.
By the 20th century, the political landscape had changed, and one party in particular carried street protests on its shoulders: the Communists. Strong until the late 1980s thanks to the massive support of unions, it brought many political battles to the streets – and won.
1936: First paid holidays for the working classes of France.
In 1936, a protest organised to commemorate La Commune gathered an extraordinary 600,000 people, triggering massive strikes across the country. Such was the breadth of the protests that the unions’ demands were quickly met by the government, who signed what are known as the Matignon agreements. This was a huge victory for the working classes: salaries were raised across the board and workers obtained the unequivocal right to unionise.
Later, the working week went from 48 hours to 40, and two weeks of paid holidays (the famous congés payés France is often derided for by countries where workers enjoy limited time off) were made law. The nationalisation of public services, such as the railways, was also well under way.
Once again, in the eyes of many, protests had led to the betterment of the lives of ordinary French families.
May 1968: Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the cobblestones, the beach!)
After the second world war, the Communist party’s ideals were carried forward by both the working class and the intellectual elite (including Jean-Paul Sartre, who became a Marxist).
In the spring of 1968 an uprising brought to life by the anger of students further transformed France. It started as a protest at the police presence at the Sorbonne university following disagreements between student factions. But the conflict escalated and morphed into a cultural battle carried on by young people fed up with General de Gaulle’s regime and France’s antiquated social values.
The entire country was brought to a halt as universities and the streets of the capital were occupied. Cobblestones were dug up and thrown at police. The anger spread to factories, where workers organised a general strike that paralysed the nation. The national assembly was dissolved, and parliamentary elections called.
Trade unions obtained a 35% increase in the minimum wage and a shorter working week, which was judged to be insulting by radical workers who thought unions did not go far enough in their demands (just imagine that in 2016).
By the mid-1960s, the Communist party was winning more votes than its socialist counterpart. Soon, however, the party found itself torn between leaders such as Georges Marchais, who continued to support the Soviet regime, and those who regarded that as folly. It was the beginning of the end of the French communist dream.
But the history of protests in France is not all lefty idealists and May 1968 hippies. Historically, conservative movements have also been adept at challenging governments. In 1984, with socialist François Mitterand in power, a massive turnout of voters managed to shatter an educational reform aimed at bringing religious schools into line with their public counterparts. Catholic schools, afraid of losing their independence and autonomy, led enormous protests in Paris. The bill was killed shortly afterwards.
Now for the last hurrah: two of the last big victories for unions and protesters happened about a decade apart. The first, in 1995, was a response to austerity measures led by prime minister Alain Juppé, who wanted to reform pensions and France’s social security system. Three weeks of strikes later, the government relented.
The second was against reforms aiming for more flexible work contracts in 2006 – the bill was aimed at young workers and students, who saw it as a dangerous affront to their rights and fought back. The project was abandoned.
A few other battles were won here and there, maintaining the relevance of the politics of protest – the farmers’ strikes against EU subsidies they considered to be flawed, for example. But nothing in recent times had the impact of May 1968.
What about now?
More recently, there have been worrying signs for both unions and those who enjoy a big ol’ protest, including those involved in the most recent strikes by taxi drivers and air traffic controllers. Two of the biggest actions organised in recent years failed to produce any results.
The first: pension reform in 2010 led by the Sarkozy government, setting the retirement age at 62 (rising in following years), among other changes.
By now, you know the drill: unions decried the project, strikes were organised, anger spread in the streets of Paris. But, perhaps due to the diminishing power of unions, or the Sarkozy government’s resolute will to win the arm-wrestling contest, the reforms passed.
The second lost battle is more curious: it is La Manif’ Pour Tous, the conservative-minded protest which rallied people opposed to same-sex marriage. They lost, but as journalist Romain Burrell wrote on this site: “The violence of the clash surprised everyone … no one would have predicted such a negative, nasty and damaging debate.”
Just like that, two of the biggest protests in the country’s recent history fell flat on their faces.
What it means for the future of protests in France is unclear – growing anger and perceptions of inequality in the face of continuing austerity measures could fuel mass resentment and spark another titanic social shift.
It is, however, unlikely. The new unionless middle classes find strikes bothersome. Commuters who see their trains cancelled or the metro ground to a halt seldom ask why unions are so unhappy. Instead, they mutter about how they don’t have it easy either.
France may finally be shaking off its habit, nurtured over centuries, of raucous (and surprisingly successful) solidarity.