The French Psyche: 150 years of Civil Unrests
The French public took to the roads to protest a controversial decision by their President Emmanuel Macron, disrupting institutions nationwide. If you think this refers to the Yellow Jackets Movement, you are… half correct. This simple statement also applies to the student protests earlier in April and May and the union strikes which occurred over the same timespan.
If we rewind a bit further, through what seems like a century of civil unrest, we come to September 2017, when the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) called for a strike against Macron’s labour reforms. Despite many having drawn the comparison between the Yellow Jackets Movement and the infamous 1968 events, it seems just a matter of time before the world is swept by another wave of strikes and protests in Paris.
According to statistics by the European Trade Union Institute, from 2009 to 2013, France lost 171 days not worked per 1000 employees, far above those of Spain (65), the United Kingdom (24), and Germany (12). In short, the French not only strike and protest more often, but when they do, they ensure that the protests and strikes make headlines. This all begs the question: why exactly do the French strike?
Regarding the recent Yellow Jacket movement, many are quick to point fingers at Macron’s allegedly abysmal policymaking. In November, Macron intended to raise the fuel tax, the initial cause of the movement. Nevertheless, it is also important to recall that this fuel tax reflects one of the commitments in line with the Paris Climate Commitment: it is essentially an eco-tax to encourage the use of greener energy while discouraging the use of fossil fuels. Of course, it did not help when the budget plan did not redirect the tax revenues back to the poor. It also did not help when the tax was announced as a flat tax, meaning that the poor will be hit harder, in comparison to the rich.
Understanding that all policies can attract some sort of political dissent, it just seems that Macron chose the wrong execution for a type of tax already present in as many as 40 countries.
However, at this point, it is also worth recalling that Macron backed down from his original commitment. By the first week of December, the President had scrapped the tax and even removed it from the 2019 budget altogether. To compensate for the mishaps, the Government had also increased minimum wages and introduced tax cuts, yet, by the first week of January, pictures of protesters roaming French cities and public buildings reemerged.
Now, the messages the protesters carry go against the French government’s general economic policies, and these sentiments, along with their roots in French universities, bear strong resemblance to the protests of 1968, arguably the most influential civil movements in France post-WWII.
It is worth taking a trip back five decades to examine the sheer scale and impact of the events that transpired in 1968. Once again starting from a university, the world renowned “Sorbonne,” student protests energized factory workers and civil servants. It is estimated that as many as ten million workers took part in the two-week movement, and the pressure mounted to the extent that then-president Charles de Gaulle briefly left the state. For movie-lovers, the movement left a footprint on the French New Wave of Cinema; for social-enthusiasts, this was the movement that left Jean Paul Sartre arrested and then pardoned by de Gaulle himself.
Yet, for a movement so influential, the cause was again oddly specific. While it grew out of a student struggle, the movement was a statement against poor working and living conditions. It did not target any government’s policies but rather was an outcry for changes that the government had long failed to meet.
The political outcome of 1968 did not really reflect the strides of the movement. De Gaulle’s supporters had their own counter protests and the President assumed power once more after a June re-election. Nevertheless, the events of 1968 produced a social ramification that drilled into the psyche of the French public; they emphasized the position and importance of social movements in pushing forth an agenda. The protests resulted in increases in minimum wage and other benefits, including reduced working hours, a narrative no longer foreign in the 2018 context.
However, to further dissect the snowballing effect of 1968 requires delving further into the past, scrutinizing the historical beginnings of the French tradition of protest.
Thirty-two years before de Gaulle had to flee, 4.5 million workers undertook a general strike with as many as one million taking to the streets, causing widespread shutdowns of factories and public institutions. Between May and June of 1936, 12,000 strikes, protests, and occupations swept the nation and ensured that the voices of workers would not go unheard.
One more time, the strike broke out not against a single policy, but as retaliation against lackluster infrastructure for working and living conditions. The main difference between the 1936 strike and the ’68 episode was the legacy. The strike led the Popular Front to assume power as a coalition of Socialists and to undertake the Matignon Agreements. The Agreements saw radical changes in favor of the workers, including wage increases, paid vacations, and collective bargaining, to name a few. Most profoundly, the right to strike became a cornerstone of the contract between the bureaucracy and the workers.
While the social implications of the movement were quickly lost due to the onset of WWII and the political implications faded after the collapse of the Front in 1938, the legal foundations would remain engrained far into the present.
For many, the idea of workers’ protests and uprisings was not something “as old as time.” Rather, it was born out of turbulent mid-19th century political movements. In Europe, the rise of Marx, Engels, and their socialist ideals breathed fresh views into the rising state of urbanism and the working class in many European metropolitan areas.
Paris and France, at the heart of the first revolutionary movement in the Old Continent in 1789, again took the forefront in adopting revolutionary ideals. Around 300 strikes happened between 1830 and 1847, with an average duration of six days. These strikes were testaments to the role of public activism in the process of negotiations with employers and the government in general. It was also this movement that led to the partial legalization of the right to strike in 1864, commonly cited as the origin of French civil unrest.
Where does this leave us?
In 2019, it leaves us in Paris, where the protests are bound to rage until sufficient conditions are met. Intrinsically, there are two culprits responsible.
The first cause is the extreme level of red tape in French bureaucracy. From 1791, France has gone through sixteen different constitutions; the latest one, ratified in 1958, has twenty-four different amendments. French party politics have long been barred from short-term coalitions, with the rise of a centrist Macron as a prime example. These intricacies resulted in the inability of politicians to address the needs of the masses, and almost by nature, when the conditions became unbearable, the workers took to the streets to get their voices heard.
The second culprit would be the dual characteristics of French unions. As the ’68 events laid the path for wildcat strikes, unions became extremely powerful in organizing workers and calling for action despite having modest figures of membership. At the same time, the unions are also at the mercy of the authorities. This relationship inadvertently encouraged unions to exercise their strength while they could, usually before any indications of negotiations, to get into a favorable negotiating position before being clamped down by the government.
Understanding that both these arrangements of political powers and union powers were deep-rooted, observers can only feel an urge to see the Yellow Jackets Movement go down in history before the process restarts itself all over again.