If you’ve been keeping up with the news recently, there is one headline that has popped up about France. If I were to give you three guesses, you’d probably get it in the first try. The French are striking.
It’s become something so associated with the French national reputation that it’s rarely worth mentioning.
During my third year of university, I was fortunate enough to live in France and honestly, if anything, the reputation is understated. Anytime I went to Paris for the weekend, there was without fault a protest of some sort. Perhaps, you may point out, this is simply because it’s the capital. Is London really so different? One weekend, I decided to explore a small, medieval town called Troyes (incidentally, it’s where Henry V – the Agincourt Henry – got married). Lo and behold that even in this provincial town, as I trudged my way to the hostel, the sounds of vuvuzelas and drums could be heard as protestors turned a corner and made their cause heard (if not understood).
We often tease the French for their riotous proclivity. The impression they give is that they’ll strike for more pay, more holidays and more often than not, for the fun of it. Nonetheless, these recent rounds of strikes are about something quite serious. One of the key challenges in politics is between conversation and force. Between deliberation and violence. Between negotiation and compulsion. On the surface, the protests are over Macron’s retirement policy – and how he made unorthodox use of the French Constitution to force it through without Parliament’s approval – but more fundamentally, it’s about this tension between negotiation and compulsion. Before going further, it’s worth exploring this tension as well as the beginnings of France’s relationship with protest.
French History from Reims
There’s a small city to the east of Paris called Reims. The name might not be instantly recognisable, partly because pronouncing it makes you sound like a cat hissing but were you to look at a bottle of champagne there’s a good chance it says á Reims – of Reims. While not being particularly large, it has a cathedral bigger than the Notre Dame of Paris. It is also where the first French kings were crowned and has been the traditional place of coronation for most of French history.
In this small city, in the years before the French Revolution, there were two men. One was the Vicar-General of Reims. Because of his position in the clergy, he would have access to the Estates-General, the body that attempted to discuss how France should solve its problems before France broke out in revolution. The other was a student and aspiring lawyer who studied in nearby Troyes and was there to watch the young King Louis XVI crowned. The latter of the two is perhaps more well-known. His name is Danton. He would go on to be a leading figure in the Revolution and espoused the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood that France still celebrates today. The other was a man of aristocratic lineage called Talleyrand. Liar, traitor, womaniser, gambler were but a few of his unofficial titles. More importantly, his career would see him traverse the perils of a Revolution set against any representative of the old regime, negotiate on France’s behalf as Napoleon’s foreign minister only to manage to keep his standing when the Bourbon kings were restored to power.
Danton, ultimately, was a man of force. Known for being loud, bombastic and charismatic, he inspired the people of Paris with forceful speeches in favour of a Revolution. When events spun out of control, he joined the ‘Committee for Public Safety’ – a bureaucratic way of saying that he led the Terror and had dissidents guillotined en masse. During this time, Reims was being broken. Seen as a Royalist hotbed, the symbols of the monarchy were to be torn down in iconoclastic rage. Statues of kings, the holy oil used to anoint them and even the city’s standing as the capital of the region were shattered. Despite being a leader of the Revolution, Danton was himself beheaded at the age of 34.
Talleyrand, on the other hand, survived. Not only did he survive the Revolution – by going on a diplomatic mission to the newly-founded United States and staying there – but his reputation managed to survive as well. As a peacemaker, his career survived being foreign minister to Europe’s greatest general since the Romans. More incredibly, he managed to survive betraying Napoleon and would serve the royal family that was fundamentally opposed to anything linked with Napoleon’s regime. Talleyrand, ultimately, was a negotiator. He wasn’t opposed to force, he knew it had merit, but he also knew that it was a means to an end, not the end itself. Legitimacy comes from building consent, not strong-arming those who disagree.
The key difference between the Revolution and Napoleon’s leadership was that the debate between force and negotiation returned to a top-down decision. The Revolution had stirred the put, broken down the hierarchy of the ancien regime and left the decision of discussion or violence to people who were hungry, scared and unused to democracy. In so doing, it left towns divided, regions in uprising and people headless. Napoleon, for his faults, restored order and governance.
As much as we mock the French for their eagerness to strike, they get things right a lot of the time. By and large, it’s a sign of a healthy society that is so willing to make its voice heard. But with Macron’s recent policies, things have begun to change.
Macron, in his attempt to reform French retirement laws, made an unorthodox use of the French constitution. Instead of using the French parliament, he bypassed it and forced the bill into action. This is concerning in and of itself but to many, it isn’t justified. If the French state is so in need of a better balance on its accounts, then why not simply tax the rich? For this reason, people across the country have been protesting.
In my one-timed home of Reims, students at the same university I went to have similarly taken action. The university is called SciencesPo and it has a reputation for being elitist – it’s usually compared as France’s LSE but culturally, the French see SciencesPo in the same way that we see Oxbridge.
Some students decided that they would set a picket line outside of the entrance in order to force people to take a political stance and to make a sign of blocking the elites. One cannot simply ignore the President refusing to tax the rich and forcing through laws. It’s a bit of a given that politics students at an elite political university will protest politics they don’t like. What makes this event different is that a far-right student organisation called l’UNI invited fascist and royalist groups from the nearby area to come and smash up the picket line.
If that were all, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. French protests are usually a little bit more… vigorous than ours so it doesn’t seem entirely out of the ordinary. On this occasion however, the invited groups started assaulting students. One student was hospitalised because of the attack. In the aftermath, during the evening, the would-be militias were seen roaming the city with knives looking for people from the blockade.
I’ve always seen Reims as being quite similar to Bath – it’s largely a quiet city that is known for its history and cathedral. To see this peaceful corner of France turn so violent is an upsetting thing to see. More than that, it’s a chilling reminder that healthy discussions need to be had across the political spectrum. Protests done properly are a space where conversations and ideas are mobilised. Part of this means approaching protests – regardless of which side of the picket line you’re on – as a form of negotiation and conversation. As soon as you add force to the mix, that changes. To know that it was students like you and I that made that change should be cause for both worry and introspection.
If there’s one thing to takeaway, it is that politics is not a place where the extremes should be treated lightly. While Danton incited Revolutionary zeal at every turn – and France is surely grateful to him for defending principles it still holds dear – his days ended with his head cut off by the same people he had catapulted to power. Talleyrand, on the other hand, was involved in the General Assembly, Napoleon’s regime and the Bourbon Restoration. He wasn’t opposed to force, but negotiation has to be the first port of call. Because of his mastery at diplomacy, France largely retained its position as a leading power in Europe. Moreover, for most of the century that followed Napoleon’s fall, France and the rest of the great powers were at peace. Nearly 234 years later, the challenge between force and negotiation is still here and it has every chance of being just as dangerous.