Spotlight

France’s Love Affair With Protest Culture

How the French keep their government on its toes.

After weeks of British rail workers, teachers, and nurses striking against the Tory government to little success, their efforts were echoed in a rather more dramatic fashion across the channel.

In France, on 28 March, 740,000 citizens poured into the streets to protest pension reforms passed by the government. Over the course of three weeks, 1 in 3 French citizens have joined an organized protest.

It is a remarkable show of solidarity, one of the country’s founding values, against what is considered a rather modest reform.

The pension reform raises the retirement age from 62 to 64 to try to curb the government’s spending on pensions, which currently stands at 17 billion euros a year.

The French government pays 13.6% of its GDP on pensions, while the UK pays less than 5% of its own. Considering the UK will have a pension age of 68 by 2037, the French have a very unique reaction which is mass protest.

Who can blame them? The state has supported its citizens for so long with progressive reforms, pulling them backward only encourages discontentment.

In several protests, people set garbage cans on fire, several cars, as well as a city hall door in the major city, Bordeaux. These scenes have not been seen in England since the London 2011 riots, but they were similar in France only five years ago with the “Gilets Jaunes” riots.

Yet what is at the root of this relationship between the French state and its citizens which prompts such protest fever when the government takes a step back?

 

Keeping up with politics is not a “yes or no” question.

For the French, politics is a matter of life and death — quite literally.

Whether you ask a student, a worker, a friend’s parent, or an elderly figure their opinion on a topic in French politics, they will answer you thoroughly. Not only do they have an opinion, but they will also all have a lengthy argument to back it up whether you agree with it or not.

From the perspective of someone who grew up in France, it seems far more common to come across people who do not comment on the political landscape as much in the UK.

Given the dominance of the Tory and Labour Parties in politics, it can be understandable why. In France, there are nine different political parties that race in the Presidential and National Assembly elections.

That multitude of political perspectives is but one of the cultural differences between France and the UK. Another is the nature of the French state itself.

 

French citizens are keenly aware of their representatives and keep them accountable.

The French government is a direct democracy, which means the citizens directly elect the President as well as the National Assembly.

Rather than keeping up to date with a party’s political stance, like the Tories for example, the French stay keenly aware of what individual politicians think and act on.

As seen with President Macron’s government, a French politician can create a new party in the election race as long as they have enough popular support.

The public state is much larger in France.

Another reason for the population being so politically inclined is the size of the state. The government is centralized in Paris, but it has a vast number of offices in every region of the country.

With a much more socialist system than the British one, the higher number of French government roles generates a much more politically involved population.

 

The French revolutionary spirit.

Many will say that the French culture of defiance dates back to the French Revolution of 1789 when they beheaded their King and Queen. Though it is still very important for French identity (there is a national holiday for it) protest culture has a much more recent beginning.

In May 1968, the entire country was brought to a halt as students protested in the streets and workers went on strike in the factories. They paralysed the nation.

They were protesting conservative social values which were pushed by the government at the time, such as anti-union laws. The results of those protests actually included a 35% increase in the minimum wage and a shorter working week (35 hours).

For the French, that spring was known as “the moment that changed the course of history”. It showed them that they could stand up to the government.

The French protest everything, including the conservative causes.

Although there is a history of unions organizing most strikes in the country, French conservatives have held important strikes which have halted several pieces of legislation.

In 1984, massive protests against educational reforms which would limit the influence of Catholic schools stopped the legislation from passing government. In the last decade, strikes against the rights to gay marriage have also been organized by religious groups.

 

You have to protest to show your sentiment.

In France, it is clear that protesting is the only way to show the government what the public feels towards a proposed law.

Since seats are up for grabs in the French national assembly between all of the parties on election day, politicians must react to protests to keep their popularity and party in power.

Not commenting on political trends can be a political disaster. The French rarely forget who stood up for them when they go to vote.

For them, protesting is actually one of their only channels into French democracy. They vote for the President and the members of the National Assembly only once every five years.

Considering, culturally they are very inclined to stay up to date with politics — five years is a long time to not act.

 

What can the UK learn from these protests?

Clearly, there has to be a much broader cause for protesting, which is solidarity and workers’ rights for the French. Many causes are brought up, like pay increases for teachers and rail workers, but only a single purpose that speaks to the majority of the nation will bring about mass protest and top-down change. For this to work, everyone has to be included. Both young and older people must be encouraged to stay politically active.

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