Aujourd’hui Tous Unis!
Do you like licorice? Ever buy any from Haribo? You probably won’t find any that was made on January 29, at least not in France. Haribo workers were out in the streets, along with between 1,000,000 and 2,500,000 million other French people, depending on whose numbers you trust, to voice their unhappiness with the state of the world in general and life in France in particular.
But, as I’ve heard some people ask, “what have they got to protest about? Isn’t protesting against a worldwide economic crisis kind of like protesting against bad weather?” As this sign points out, it’s a bit of everything, le ras le bol général, the fed-up-to-hereness that’s pervasive in France these days. Erosion of legal rights, deterioration of the justly famed health care system, huge cuts in education, retirees struggling to make ends meet, the reduction of many full-time jobs to part-time, an enormous surge in the number of layoffs and people living on unemployment, virtually the whole fabric of French society is seen by a huge number of French citizens as being under attack. And, as a matter of national character, when people here feel threatened, they head for the streets.
As my friend Kathy emailed me “France can strike like nowhere on Earth. They really have it down.” There’s even an expression for it, “déscendre dans la rue.” To get down into the street and show your face and join your voice to those of your friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
I think probably it’s a part of the basic French blood type, harking all the way back to the Revolution. Lots of children were in the streets, in part because the teachers were striking, as well as hospital workers, most other public sector workers and many private sector employees, retired people, and the unemployed. But instead of running wild, freed from a day of school, I saw a lot of children talking seriously with their parents about what was happening, the next generation of strikers in the making.
High school kids have been out on strike a lot this year already, protesting the massive cuts planned in teacher positions and the loss of special support for the kids that need it most in order to graduate.
One thing that made this day really special was the fact that everyone agreed to protest together, members of pretty much every political party except Sarkozy’s own, all striking in solidarity to protest what they see as a continuing erosion of the basic and highly valued French way of life. Of course, for an American, even seeing people standing nonchalantly under a Communist Party banner is an interesting experience, but here, where people may freely belong to any party they wish, and there are almost too many parties to count, the PCF was just one small part of a much larger movement.
Even people who couldn’t walk in the parade were out to show their support. Many of the marchers waved to this lady, and she waved back enthusiastically, an elderly woman in her bathrobe, a part of the life of the town that I know nothing about. Because I was, of course, there only as a journalist/blogger. I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t under any banner, didn’t have any demands. I stayed a little apart, using my camera to explain my presence.
But there was a time when the road narrowed, when there was no choice but to join in the march or leave it behind. I haven’t been “in the streets” since the Vietnam war protests, which is longer ago than I care to admit. It was a special moment, and I found it very moving, to walk down an ancient street with people who really care about the state of the modern world.
Along the way I collected a pocket full of flyers from everyone that was handing them out, to bring to my French teacher so we could discuss the details of what each group was asking for. And in the process, two really important questions were put right in my face.
When I asked the PCF lady for a flyer I mentioned that since we don’t have a communist party in the US it was very interesting to me to see what they proposed as a solution to the crisis. She asked me “how is it possible that in the largest democracy in the world one doesn’t have the right to belong to and vote for whatever party one chooses?”
And later, when Shel read through the flyers, he pointed out that, contrary to what one would expect in the US, there was not one single call for a reduction in taxes. All people wanted, people from every walk of life, people of every political persuasion, was to have the French way of life, liberté, égalité, et fraternité, the good life for one and all, restored and assured. Services and social protections for all, taxes be damned, party membership be damned, just let’s have a society that meets all of our needs. That’s what January 29 was all about. “Aujourd’hui tous unis” was the chant of the day. Today we’re all united. And even on such a day, although we never expected it, our garbage was picked up, and the mail was delivered.
Think about it.