National pastime, cathartic rite, and hereditary calling all rolled into one, the French labor protest occupies a holy space on the country’s social genome, much like baseball or playing the stock market does in the U.S. This week, the kids in France let the world know that the protest gene is alive and well, uncorrupted by years of corrosive globalization and conservative politics. And the world is paying attention. We can roll our eyes at images of rich kids staring down robotic water canons, but we can’t deny that France is one of a dwindling number of democracies where dissent is not only tolerated by the government but expected.
Everyone from grizzled old farmers to Sharon Stone has denounced the youth labor law that has hurled France into a social tailspin these past weeks. But even those who hate the law are starting to believe that the protests won’t accomplish all that much in the end—a revolution in spirit but not substance. The despised document at the heart of the matter (the “CPE,” which would enable employers to fire young employees after a two-year trial period) got a big thumbs up from France’s constitutional counsel late Thursday, and President Chirac appears likely make it official soon.
All this will incite more protests in the days ahead—protests of increasing desperation and futility. A little-talked-about reality of French academia, one that a friend alerted me to, is the fast approaching Easter vacation. (This in a country proud of its secularism.) In the middle of April, students will vacate schools and head home for two weeks of official idleness. By the time they return, the academic year will be almost over and few will be inclined to take up the cause again, if indeed the cause still exists by that time. If French students treasure their right to protest, they may value their right to long vacations even more.
During the past few days, I spoke with people around Paris about their reactions to the protests. None thought the CPE was a good law, but neither did they think the protests would amount to much. A friend smartly pointed out that many French are able to retire at 55, which means that people can spend as much time in retirement as they did working. (Some are even pushing to lower the retirement age to 50, or 45.) Naturally, today’s youth will foot the bill, even though almost a quarter of those under 25-years-old are unemployed and can’t make a living. This is a generational conundrum that goes beyond the current protests, which seem in comparison like arguing over what wood varnish we should use on the decks of the Titanic.
Walking through Paris, the protests seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, a phantom presence that would randomly burst forth to everyone’s general annoyance and dismay. In the labyrinthine Montparnasse-Bienvenue metro station, a group of lyceens noisily occupied the entire span of a moving sidewalk on a busy Thursday afternoon, pushing out pedestrians while shouting and waving flags. (I was luckily on the opposite sidewalk, though I quickly ran into their spirited cohorts further down, where they were crowding people off the subway platform.)
Outside, the police had removed the metal grates that normally cage-in the trees that line city streets. This caused a thick, shit-colored ooze to flow onto the sidewalks (it had rained all week), making walking a disgusting chore for everyone. I asked a journalist acquaintance why they had done this and she said it was to prevent students from removing the grates themselves and hurling them at police. How resourceful! It hadn’t occurred to me that they could be used as weapons, but then again, I’m from New York, where what passes for a typical demonstration are a couple hundred people gathered in Union Square, waving anti-Bush banners for an hour or two.
On a Friday evening, I caught a play in the east part of the city. Surely there would be no protesters here. No such luck. Following the curtain call, the actors delivered a five minute speech, voicing their concern about a group of “intermittents” (unsalaried workers in the entertainment industry) who had been arrested for protesting their working conditions on the set of the French reality TV show Star Academy. (Think Big Brother meets American Idol, set in an 18th century chateau.) The actors informed us that they would be protesting in front of the prison at Bobigny, where the intermittents were currently imprisoned.
Such is the bizarrely inclusive nature of French protests—they accumulate additional, often vaguely related demonstrations into a gigantic, unstoppable snowball. During this Tuesday’s protests, farmers from the provinces were marching alongside students, protesting the country’s beef policies. Two weeks ago, when the student demonstrations were just getting started, Parisian prostitutes—female, male, transvestite, and transsexual—went on strike to denounce a law that would make solicitation illegal.
More carnavalesque parade than political showdown, this week’s demonstrations were undeniably photogenic, sweeping, and romantic. But that’s about as profound as they are likely to be. France needs a cure for its gangrened social system, but none is at hand. Its students may not find a solution this week or anytime soon, but at least they’re in the streets, and for now, that’s a start.