World, Europe

France on strike: Why the French doth protest

In a country that values liberty as a right above all else, demonstrating is almost a national pastime

Cindi Cook   | 25.01.2020
France on strike: Why the French doth protest


France has been in a near-constant state of protest for the last 14 months.

From Yellow Vests to pension reform protesters, there has been little to no let up in public outcry by the working class, even the upper class, over French rule.

Nov. 17, 2018 marked the first day of the GIlets Jaunes movement, or "yellow vest," for the bright protective pieces of clothing motorists are required to carry in their vehicles should they get in an accident.

Protesters in the social justice movement donned the same, giving an instant visual cue to their cause, which centered on rising fuel prices and taxes as well as the need for improved government services for rural areas.

Gilets Jaunes took to the streets, with just over a quarter million people in the first protest, and have returned every Saturday since.

In the third week, fierce demonstrations took place in Paris at six different major locales, with protesters lighting 22 cars and six buildings on fire. The main demonstration surrounded the Arc de Triomphe where three protesters broke into the monument scaling to the top, and waving the

Tricolour in triumph to the delighted cries of their colleagues below.
A new strike has now gripped France against proposed pension reforms put forth by the French government. It is the longest transport strike in France's history -- 51 days and counting. The seventh mass protest takes place Jan. 24, as President Emmanuel Macron roles out the proposed bill to the Council of Ministers.

Initiated by the rail worker unions RATP and SNCF, the strike is now supported by a vast number of unions, including UNSA, FO, CGT, CFE-CGC, FSU, Solidaires, and youth unions, among others. Metro trains and rail service nationwide have been crippled, especially hampering business during the holiday season.

Thousands have protested, from Bordeaux to Le Cheylard. Hospital workers, lawyers, teachers, even physical therapists have added their voices, as have the yellow vests.

But vociferous objection is nothing new for a nation whose 18th-century revolution brought down the powerful French monarchy, and whose Paris Uprising inspired a masterpiece in the literary canon, Les Miserables, and its accompanying hit musical. Entertainment aside, rebelling against governmental and societal change is something the French take very seriously.

Dr. Kurt Vandaele, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), sees French strike patterns can be understood against the background of a historical and institutional setting.

"The right to strike is an individual civil right," he said. "It is not linked to union membership."

There is also a long history of centralized state power in France, and, as vigorous as they may appear on the outside, organizations such as unions and collective bargaining are quite weak in France.

"Historically, there is a marginal role for unions. The French liberal idea of nation doesn't require any intermediary processes between the citoyen and the state," Vandaele said. "Having a weak tradition of collective bargaining at the industrial level, strikes tend to be local or national, or linked to a particular enterprise or occupation. Class struggle, then, often takes the form of conflicts between workers and government."

At the center of the current debate is Macron's desire to consolidate 42 separate pension schemes into one, point-based system.

Critics say the reforms will effectively force millions to work longer for a smaller pension. The subject has only fueled the skepticism very much at the heart of the French character, a disbelief in one power or one president to solve all.
Current demonstrations bear that out. During the "days of action" -- seven of which have been held so far -- cries of "Macron demission!" ("Macron resign!") and "Macron, we're going to come for you in your home" have been heard.

And protests have also evolved from simple marches to more creative rebellion.

On Jan. 22, workers from the CGT Energie-Isere union shut down the hydroelectric power plant in Grand'Maison, at Allemont, in the French region of Isere, causing mass outages.
Paris Opéra workers joined the cause, shuttering the famed Palais Garnier. Even the Paris Opera ballet dancers rebelled, giving a performance of Swan Lake on the steps of the building.

Louvre workers went on strike, shuttering the celebrated museum for a few days in January.

Student unions protested police brutality Jan. 17 at a high school in Paris's 20th arrondissement.

Most seriously, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were subject to protesters breaking into a theater where they were attending a play Jan. 17. Protesters were barred from entering, however, and the president and his wife were able to finish watching the performance.

Multiple arrests have been made every week, with protests often turning violent as demonstrators vandalize businesses and clash with police.

Notably, France has had a rail strike every year for 72 years, since 1947. A chart assembled by the ETUI put forth an average of strike days in Europe between 2010 and 2017. France is second after Cyprus.

Yves Veyrier, a representative of the Force Ouvriere, told France Radio on Friday that it is not going anywhere anytime soon. "We're going to show that faced with this acceleration, this stubbornness by the government, ours is just as strong."

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