Springtime in France: it’s a period when the countryside lights up with glorious plants, and homestead shutters are flung open to welcome the season of renewal. The good weather also energises civic activities of a different kind. Demonstrations. When it comes to protesting, France tops the list in Europe.
For as long as anyone can remember, the French have been prepared to get vocal about perceived social injustice. Among recent examples, the 1968 students’ revolt was a milestone. And it began as a relatively minor complaint over sleeping accommodation rules at Nanterre University.
Fearing an escalation of the protests, the Dean of Nanterre University banned disenchanted students from their college. Undaunted and broadening their complaints to encompass political issues, the students switched direction and marched to the Sorbonne in Paris.
They were soon joined by thousands of worker sympathisers, who added their demands for social reform. The result was a general strike, which brought France to a standstill. It was a landmark success for participants, resulting in substantial pay increases and better working conditions. Today, strike action is somewhat different.
Regular as clockwork, groups nationwide protest about an unpopular policy or proposed changes to government legislation. Often, the President becomes the focus of attention, which, to a degree, reflects the political structure. Examples include fuel prices, employee terms and conditions, and the current hot topic: a rise in pension age.
Generally, though not exclusively organised by trade unions, disruption happens at different levels. Paris, in particular, and other major cities take the brunt of the manifestations (demonstrations), with thousands downing tools and taking to the streets, waving banners and bellowing through megaphones. In rural areas like ours, the effects often go unnoticed, though not always.
During the fuel protests, which began in 2018, roundabouts connecting to autoroutes swarmed with yellow-jacketed protesters. Dubbed the gilet jaunes, they branded placards and slowed us down, asking us to display yellow security bibs and toot in solidarity as we drove past. These were good-humoured, noisy demos. Thousands of farmers got involved and drove their tractors dead slow in convoys along autoroutes to the departmental cities, causing disruption and intrigue in equal measure.
Fascinated by this passion for striking, we have discussed the subject with our French friends over the years. And then usually regretted our decision. As you’ll read, it’s a fiery subject.
“The French are always revolting!” grumped Jean-Pierre (plum farmer), whose travel plans had to be re-arranged because of a transport strike. “The French don’t have a work ethic!” complained my pal Mélanie, struggling to run her business and look after her child, sent home from school because of a teachers’ strike.
I also wanted to know what really happens in the capital during ‘strike season’. I asked Lindy Viandier, my bestselling author friend who lives in Paris with her French husband. Lindy went through the French citizenship process, and her comments were fascinating.
“Politics and debating are taught in schools, and French history is drummed into them. There are multiple regular demonstrations in Paris against one thing or another, not all hitting the headlines.
The French have fought hard through two revolutions to have democracy, and it is the cornerstone of the Republic. After the intense studying, I did to gain nationality, I became enlightened and understand the surrounding issues much better. I went in as a royalist and came out as a republican!”
I then spoke with Patrick Joseph, who runs an excellent website: https://www.my-french-house.com/. I write a monthly article for his online ‘Frog Blog’ and love chatting with him about his native France.
Patrick’s opinion about demonstrations was particularly interesting.
“Not quite a national pastime, it’s almost a duty for any university student and an unfashionable right for many public professional sectors. They consider taking to the streets an immovable right to express their discontentment to the Parisian aristocracy and politicians at the Assemblée Nationale.”
Another friend who lives in Paris is resigned to the regular disruption. Recently, she’s taken to dutifully preparing her successful businessman husband’s drapeau (flag) for him to wave when he joins the anti-pension reform mob.
The truth is, despite some complaints, they’re all protective of their inherent right to protest. I distinctly remember discussing this with our tiler, Jean-Pierre, when we were renovating Le Palizac. Usually high on wacky-baccy, he was deadly serious when we broached the subject.
“It’s necessary,” he insisted, just back from a weekend of striking in Paris. “You have to understand,” he added, “it’s all about Liberté, égalité, fraternité. We must defend our rights.”
This was the same friend who soon after flew to Patagonia to join comrades with banners over a social conflict in South America. Demonstrating, like his fellow countrymen, is in his DNA, and I wondered why.
Love Versailles? It’s that magnificent palace on the edge of Paris. You can’t miss it; it’s enormous. King Louis XIV had it built in the 1670s. It was also the palace where thousands of workers died during its construction. There were no workers’ rights in those days. This status continued into King Louis XVI’s reign. Having helped the American revolutionaries’ war against Britain, France had run out of cash and levied tax rises on the workers to raise funds. The struggling citizens had had enough and rebelled.
The French Revolution of 1789 saw the displacement of many nobles and their heads. The Bastille (a prison in Paris) was ransacked, and palaces were destroyed. Populace rule replaced royals, and for the first time, elections were held. It was this period that gave rise to the term: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The birth of proletarian power was later advanced by Napoleon, who created the Civil Code, enacted in 1804. Among several fundamental changes, it established male equality before the law and church and abolished the feudal system. Women didn’t get much of a legal look-in at that stage, but it was a start in establishing workers’ rights.
In 1871, workers were granted the legal right to down tools. And they haven’t looked back since.
Ask the French why France has so many excellent social policies; most will tell you it’s because citizens are prepared to stand up for themselves. And it is this fervour that Jack and I were caught up in some time ago over an intervention that threatened to mar our beloved home, Le Palizac. We eventually joined demonstrations, yes, even grumpy Jack, and proudly brandished our cardboard placards in defence of our rights. I’ll tell you the whole story in Fat Dogs and French Estates Part 6.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that strikes can be tiresome.
Travelling about and out of the country during peak strike season can be a nightmare. Schools are occasionally closed as teachers respond to calls to arms, and depending on the protest, shops and social services may be affected. But if you plan on coming to France anytime soon, don’t despair. Here are some of the coping mechanisms we have adopted.
Accepting the inevitability that there may be some disruption is half the battle. Take a moment to read about the specific activities. Strikes and demonstrations are widely advertised so that travel can be arranged around them.
Consider the impact this passion for protesting has had: excellent services, including one of the best health services in the world, a travel network to rival anywhere else, and workers’ rights that leave some employers quaking in their boots.
If your experience in France does coincide with a bout of ‘social activism’, try shrugging your shoulders in that delightfully Gallic way and summon up a modicum of respect for those prepared to fight for what they believe is right. Then relax and indulge yourself with a world-class pâtisserie, nibble on a nugget of chocolat created by Alain Ducasse, or be like us.
We’ll have a good old moan, then take a sip of exquisite Châteauneuf-du-Pape and remind ourselves that some of the greatest joys and luxuries in the world can only be found in this amazing country. Disruption? Pah! Vivre la France!