What comes into your mind at the first place when you think of France and French people? Wine? Cheese? Fashion? Or perhaps, strikes! Although France only ranks 10th worldwide in terms of number of strikes, for better or worse, people often associate this country with “strikes” and “revolution” perhaps ever since 1789.
The stereotype of such a “revolutionary” population is, to some extent, true. Regardless of their political stance, many of my French friends admit that the culture of strike does exist in France: first we strike, and then we negotiate.
According to my French political history professor, deeply influenced by the French Revolution, France does have a tradition of “the Left”, meaning that le peuple (the people) use protests and strikes to voice their opinions. However, not everyone agrees with such a culture.
While most French people that I have talked to believe in the rights of strikes and protests, many of them think that strikes do not solve the existed problems. Indeed, how could you not get frustrated when you find out that you flight the next day gets canceled because of the strike?
For many foreign students in France, going on a French strike is probably one of the most ultimate French experiences. As soon as I arrived in France late August, a wave of strikes was awaiting me throughout the fall semester. On Sept. 7, 2010, the Sarkozy government proposed a pension reform that rises retirement age from 60 to 62. The government argues that without such a pension reform, France will face a funding shortfall of between 72 billion and 115 billion euros by 2050. However, many leftists were outraged by the violation of solidarity (solidarit) by such a law. Different parties from the Left (La Gauche), as well as different worker and student unions, reacted strongly and organized nine journées de mobilization with huge strikes and protests.
On Sept. 7, 2010, I went to my first French strike ever with other students from Sciences Po Paris. The strike day started calmly. Because of the minimum service law, most of the transportation in Paris still functioned but much less frequently than usual.
The protest started near the station République and we spent two hours waiting and chanting slogans and songs before the march actually started. My French friend told me that French protests are always accompanied with music. My favorite is the song Dans les rues parisiennes (In the Parisian streets). The English translation is like this: In the Parisian streets/students sing/We like pensions and we will protect it/If Sarkozy messes it up, we will mobilize ourselves!”
The route of the march started at République, went past Bastille, and reached Nation. On the streets, the only thing I saw was the crowd. Because there were so many people, the crowd had to move so slowly and then stop from time to time. Along the two sides of the street, there were posters and info desks of many different political parties and unions.
All a sudden, I felt like walking in a museum of French politics (well, mainly the Leftists). As a big fan of the French Revolution, I was excited about seeing French people storm Bastille in a modern context.
My first time strike experience ended with the song “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay playing again and again in my head. I just need to smile less and look more revolutionary the next time I take a picture in front of the crowd and the famous Bastille.
Are the French revolutionary? If you experience how passionate they can get during the manifestations and how influential the strikes are, the answer is probably “yes.” From the French Revolution to May 1968 to the modern-day strikes, many of them are proud of their revolutionary spirit. However, the huge opposition against the new pension reform also exposes the deadlock and immobility of the French system. Many foreigners find it difficult to understand the French reluctance to work for longer hours. The French work the least hours and retire the earliest compared with their fellow Europeans. Without a pension reform, the social security system would just be empty words on the paper.
Moreover, strikes and protests bring more harm to the national economy. The defense of the solidarity of the French value and system collides with the strong need for reform under the pressure of economic recession. Perhaps the pride of revolutionary spirit needs to find its new form in the time of crisis.
-Liyan Chen ’12