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Dispatches from the present


Actions and Inaction


Trash is gathering on the sidewalks. While walking through the chichi Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood on Friday morning and Sunday afternoon, I saw narrow streets crowded with overflowing garbage bins, and bulging black trash bags piling up next to them; pictures of other areas in Paris show the same; along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine—the main thoroughfare between Bastille and Nation—cardboard boxes, sodden from the last few days’ rain, flew over the bike path. The cause is well-known: the protests.

This past week was the last week for the unions to make themselves heard by political elites before the final version of the drafted pension reform bill was approved by the Senate on Saturday, March 11th. There are many reforms proposed, but the main one enraging French people is the raise of the retirement age from 62 to 64. Since January, when President Emmanuel Macron announced these changes, protests have been waged across the nation—at several exhibition previews I’ve been to this year, curators have welcomed the attendees by thanking them for making it out in spite of the transportation strikes. Last week, as a last-ditch effort, was essentially a continuous rolling strike, with a nationwide protest led by the unions on Tuesday, a women’s rights protest on Wednesday (in line with International Women’s Day), one for students on Thursday and a climate-focused one on Friday. On Saturday there was another demonstration, with Paris-based protesters gathering in the Place de la République, a famed square known for its protests.

The first big march on Tuesday that took place in Paris was on the Left Bank: protesters gathered near the Montparnasse tower and walked through the bourgeois Montparnasse neighborhood, ending at Place d’Italie, an area known for its brutalist social housing high-rises, and a common landmark for protest routes. It was where Parisians gathered when they participated in the last national strike at the end of January, where an estimated 1.27 to 2.8 million people showed up—not just in big cities but also small villages. In 2003, too, massive protests paraded through Montparnasse, and toward Place d’Italie, against pension reforms undertaken by President Jacques Chirac, which went straight through. Tuesday’s march had the biggest turnout, with the Interior Ministry estimating 1.28 million participants and the CGT union reporting 3.5 million.

In Paris, the protest route was completely packed: Members of the Young Communists Movement of France waved red flags printed with their “JC” logo (for “jeunesse communiste”); members of the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions also waved their organization’s flags, and had large cyan floats attached to white vans driving among them. Members of the public not taking part watched from the sidelines and stood on benches to take photos on their phones. A thin stream of pedestrians walked in the opposite direction on the edges of the boulevards. Cardboard signs commonly bore the witty slogan “16-64 is a beer, not a career” (1664 is a popular French lager). On the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard du Montparnasse, the French Communist Party had parked a semi-trailer with yellow tractor and played music out of speakers; when I walked past, it was playing the reggae song “Kingston Be Wise” by Protoje, which condemns the Jamaican government for killing innocent civilians in a failed attempt at capturing a gang leader at the request of the U.S. Later, after the older protesters and children had left, footage circulated on social media of the police using aggressive tactics to get people to disperse, one hitting an unarmed woman, after which the remaining protesters retaliated by throwing cobblestones and fireworks. At the Saturday march, police rammed their shields at protesters as they moved their way down Boulevard Beaumarchais toward Place de la Nation.

One member of the National Assembly, Louis Boyard, who belongs to the leading left-wing party, took to social media to create the #BlocusChallenge, urging students to blockade the entrances to their schools and universities; he shared archival footage of Valérie Pécresse, a right-wing politician who ran for president in the last election, bedding down in a lecture theater in such a protest. Boyard proposed the campaign as a contest, encouraging students to post their efforts on social media with the hashtag; a winner would be drawn, with the prize being a tour of the National Assembly. In France, while the right to strike is protected by law, minors are not necessarily granted the same license, and some schools posted guards to deter them from protesting. While there were not large numbers of high school students involved in the #BlocusChallenge, footage on social media showed police forcibly yanking students and green recycling bins from outside the technical college Lycée Dorian, in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris. Pictures of desks piled on top of each other at major universities around France made the rounds.

This year’s protests are reminiscent of similar large-scale protests against welfare reform from years past, in 2019, 2010 and 1995. The unions have threatened to turn off more services—in support of oil-refinery workers, petrol distribution was cut off; motorists filled up in case there was another shortage like the one we had in October, when unions were striking for higher wages. The input of Parisian garbage collectors’ demonstration has made for a particularly strong show of solidarity. While in sheer numbers, this winter’s protests have had larger attendance, workers are not striking as a whole. The unions aren’t as powerful these days, with only around ten percent of the French population belonging to them. In Paris, at least, the streets have been business as usual throughout the most recent strikes; when I was leaving the big march on Tuesday, I bumped into a friend who lives near Montparnasse, who sighed, “Paris is too bourgeois to care.”

Macron, now in his second and final term, has seemed relatively unfazed by the protests. He was photographed out drinking in Kinshasa, DRC, during Tuesday’s record-breaking action, and the U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak visited him in Paris on Friday to talk about stopping migrants from crossing the English Channel. Most analysts expect the pension bill to be passed by parliament when it comes to a vote on Thursday, even though a majority of French citizens oppose it. Even if it gets voted down by the National Assembly, Macron can and will force it through by enacting Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows bills to pass with only ministerial support.

And yet, the protests and strikes continue: on Wednesday there will be another large action, in Invalides, right next to Napoleon’s tomb. Protesting and making themselves heard by the political class may be an important part of French culture, but if recent history is to be the judge, the elites are unlikely to listen.