May the French Revolution Be with You

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Here is the latest contribution from Beth, a mix living in France experience and history, all into one. This May, she explores the ‘infamous’ strikes, the Revolutions and how ‘les Français’ love the seasonal demonstrations, hoping to be part of an historical moment, as their ‘aïeux’ (parents and ancestors) have done before them. 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. This blog will feel different to previous posts, but is important to understand the foundations on which the République was built, and its famous motto; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

“Springtime in France is 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 the recent examples, the 1968 students’ May 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 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.

We live in southwest France, in Occitanie. 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 working conditions, and the current hot topic: a rise in pension age.

Often, though not exclusively organised by trade unions, disruption occurs at different levels. Paris, in particular, and other cities such as Lyon or Toulouse take the brunt of the manifestations (demonstrations), with thousands downing tools and taking to the streets, waving banners and yelling through megaphones. There are spates of violence, which the media expose, but most participants are peaceful. And in rural areas like ours, the effects often go unnoticed.

During the fuel protests, which began in 2018, roundabouts connecting to autoroutes swarmed with yellow-jacketed protesters. Dubbed the gillets jaunes, they brandished placards and slowed down traffic asking drivers to toot in solidarity as they drove past. Thousands of tractors drove 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 asked several French friends for their opinions. And then we usually regretted our decision. 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. “It’s what we do,” said many others. “The French don’t have a work ethic!” complained Mélanie, struggling to run her business and look after her child, sent home from school because of a teachers’ strike. The truth is, despite moans, they’re all in favour of their inherent right to protest.

“It’s necessary,” insisted Jean-Pierre, our tiler, just back from a weekend of striking in Paris. “You have to understand,” he added, “it’s all about Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. We must defend our rights.” This was the same friend who shortly after flew to Patagonia to join comrades with banners over a social conflict in South America. Demonstrating is in his DNA, and I wondered why.

Love Versailles? It’s that magnificently opulent 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 also started in May, in 1789, it lasted 5 years and saw the displacement of many nobles and their heads. The tour de la 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, Egalité, 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, but it was a start in establishing workers’ rights.

In 1864, 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, and most will tell you that they exist because French citizens are prepared to stand up for themselves. Still, 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 don’t despair. There are coping mechanisms.

Accepting the inevitability that there will likely be some disruption to your sojourn in France 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.

It’s overly pessimistic to assume your experience in France will coincide with a bout of ‘social activism’. But if it does, shrug your shoulders in that delightfully Gallic way, and try to 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 take a sip of exquisite Châteauneuf-du-Pape and remind yourself that some of the greatest luxuries in the world can only be found in this amazing country.”

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