The heady whiff of the street.

Once again and for the sixth time since my two boys went back to school in September, there is a general strike, a day of “interprofessional mobilisation.” Today, however, both of my sons’ teachers have decided to work. It would not be seemly for me to ask them why, but I suspect the reason is not that they’re against the strike, but that they believe the day of action will have sufficient impact without their participation. With over a million people taking to the streets, truck drivers blockading the roads, railway workers occupying the tracks, workers barricading the refineries and blocking the airports, both teachers may well feel that they can keep our little village school open without undermining the formidable tsunami of protest that makes France both the envy and the laughing stock of the world.

I know that the prevailing view outside this country is that these strikes are absurd manifestations of French petulance and immaturity. Expecting to retire at 60? What planet do the French inhabit? And how wise is it to paralyse the nation, further threatening its struggling economy for the sake of a privilege that is doomed anyway?

The feeling here is that this is not just about the retirement age but about the future of politics in this country, a notion that may seem a little absurd to those of us who believe that the age of political engagement is dead and gone. It is part of the French paradox that politics are still defined, for better or worse, by the interaction, or rather the collision between authority and rebellion. However sensible our parliamentary democratic traditions and our well-reasoned mistrust of the mob, the French don’t want to give up their revolutionary prerogative. The spirit of revolt in this country may be besmirched by violent episodes like The Terror but it is still the stuff that French dreams are made of, and this, I think, explains the massive support for these strikes.

Even those French men and women sitting in their offices in Paris, behind their spreadsheets, watching the marching hoards on their i-phones are susceptible to the thrill that goes with disobedience. And although they may have voted for him three years ago, they’re starting to feel the threat posed by Sarkozy’s style of governance to the political modus operandi of this country. They’re used to the dubious pleasure of seeing the power of the street weighing in key decisions and they, like many who support the strikers, are doing so with their hearts rather than their heads.


8 thoughts on “The heady whiff of the street.

  1. Pingback: Live blog: French strikes and protests - This is a website devoted to Breaking News -

  2. One sidebar to the protests today (blocking fuel dumps) was the line up to get gas and other things at the smattering of petrol bars around Paris, and the very hot and bothered French folks who couldn’t get in or out fast enough. I was just headed in to the station to get some air for my Vespa’s back tire when an irate French man, who should be moving gingerly overreacted and slammed on his breaks, began to yell behind his windshield and even more so when I told him in English: Relax. He would have nothing of it. First his gas and now some anglo blocking his exit? A fellow moto man said to me: French drivers, once behind the wheel, think they own the road, no matter how small, no matter who’s in it.

    So as for street protesters, well, they too own the streets. At least for a day.

  3. Thank you for this post! It’s wonderful to read something that isn’t just a reactionary “The french are lazy and don’t want to work an extra two years!” analysis of why there is unrest in the streets. And you beautifully captured the spirit of political engagement that I think is often ridiculed by countries who had had a long history of suppressing it (ahem, the US.)

    xx Jenny

  4. Brilliant!

    I don’t think however that strikers/protesters represent the majority. For most white collars working in the private sector going on strike is unthinkable.

  5. This post is exactly what I’ve been trying to express myself! Would you please keep posting more about this French feeling about political engagement? How their education, both institutional and cultural plays into it? And how you personally feel about it?

  6. Pingback: French strikes and protests: as it happened | Rubytall News

  7. I think France is a sort of paradise, at least compared to what else is on offer. The French do not see it like this. They are confused. They are on the one hand supposed to be revolutionaries but on the other they are the most conservative people anywhere demonstrating not for change but against it. The French protest and protest but then they give in. The British are the opposite – musn’t grumble, stay calm and carry on, until something snaps and they fight. Anyway, so much for generalisation. Nobody in my village seems to have much sympathy for the grevistes, excpt a couple of the ancient reds. By the way, is it right that supposedly they are called greves because the syndicalists were on the gravel at the side of the river…. or so I am told. I suppose I must go look this up now.

    Why France is a paradise, relatively speaking, is another subject.

  8. Hey, I work with the CheapOair travel blog ( and we’re interested in having you guest blog for us. Please contact me if you’re interested. Thanks! Aldo.

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