Nine empty buses, escorted by police vans with sirens wailing, roar up Boulevard Saint-Jacques, then hang a right onto Rue Soufflot below the Pantheon. Eleven in the morning, May 13, 2003: my husband Lee and I are trying to locate the big demonstration against the Chirac-Raffarin government’s proposed changes to the French pension and education systems. In the past days, newspapers and radio have been full of workers’ demands, government reaction and rumours of possible disruptions, but we haven’t found one poster on the Left Bank stating where the demonstration--in French, manifestation--will assemble.
But then people appear down the road, across from the entrance to the Jardins du Luxembourg. They are streaming north, carrying rolled-up banners and megaphones.
“Tell me,” I ask three young men, “where are you going?”
“Place de la Republique,” one carrying a banner says. He sounds surprised, as if everyone automatically knew.
Teachers' Strike, May 20, 2003 (Photo: Mary Soderstrom)
Many of the demonstrators I saw that day looked as if they’d been present exactly thirty-five years earlier--May 13, 1968--during the legendary confrontation between French youth and authority. That figured. “The proposed pension changes--raising the retirement age while simultaneously lowering retirement benefits--would deeply affect aging soixante-huitards, who got their name from the quarante-huitards of the revolution of 1848, which brought down the government of its day.” Younger demonstrators, for their part, felt that the new regulations could deprive them of good jobs. Both groups--250,000 strong, by some estimates--feared that cost-cutting measures would result in teachers and support workers being transferred from one part of the country to another and fewer resources overall for teachers and students. Great clashes between groups and authorities are, it seems, as much a part of French culture as buying a baguette on the way home from work.
As the crowd gathered, people milled about, many munching souvlaki or merguez sandwiches cooked by street vendors, as if at a colossal union picnic. It was the biggest, most cheerful labour demonstration Lee and I had ever seen, matched in our experience only by Montreal’s mammoth protests last winter against the war in Iraq.
Then the march started. The singing, chanting crowd filled the broad Boulevard Beaumarchais, moved past the Place de la Bastille and proceeded toward the Seine. We walked along the edge. “Marchers seemed ready to continue all afternoon, but when it began to rain, Lee and I decided we’d shown enough solidarity for one afternoon.”
“That evening, while walking back from a concert at the Sorbonne, a police van sped past us, filled with men in uniform.”
“Did you see that?” Lee asked me. “One guy had a machine gun pointed out the window.”
Demonstrators took to the streets in Paris and other cities twice more in May, and again in early June. On May 20, teachers all over the country went on strike, and many decided to continue the walkout indefinitely. Even the famous baccalaureate exams--a rite of passage for all young French persons with any kind of ambition--were threatened, although teachers ended up not blocking entrance to them.
Canadians and Americans might learn a lesson from the French about not following their leaders’ plans blindly. Jacques Chirac may have been wrong about pensions, but he certainly was right about the war against Iraq.