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France shows Australia how to protest


6th protest day against retirement reform within 6 weeks, Marseille, France.The news exploded. Cars were burnt, shops looted, petrol ran out, trains were cancelled, airports shut down. Workers barricaded refineries, protestors took to the streets and the country ground to a halt — all because French president Sarkozy is raising the age of the pension entitlement from 60 to 62.

One can't help but laugh — the French still think they live on a separate planet to the rest of us. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and the Greek bailout, and in light of a healthy aging population, the government doesn't have much choice but to cut back France's generous welfare state.

Despite these economic pressures Le Figaro reports that more than 69 per cent of the French population support the strike, but the support relates to dissatisfaction with the direction Sarkozy is taking France rather than the retirement age. Sarkozy's 'Lucky Luke in a shiny suit' style is not the statesmanship the French are used to. His policies trample on human rights, he dismisses civil society and is pushing France towards increased integration in the global economy by dismantling many elements that distinguish French life, such as their reluctance to work longer hours.

This lifestyle might be unsustainable in the current global climate, but strikes and protests serve to question the current climate, and sometimes new answers can be strangely born.

Strikes and protests connect the French to their ancestral selves and call citizens to 'wake up and smell the history' of collectivism and resistance.

Public conversations about strikes in France are never limited to current demands but expand into taking the nation's temperature and examining future possibilities. Politics expands because everyday disruptions demand engagement. This strike, however spoilt the protestors might seem, is not solely about the age of retirement. It is one spark from the ongoing public conversation about what constitutes life under the global economy.

In Australia a mass strike, let alone a French style strike, is unimaginable. Changes to industrial relations legislation in the last 20 years limit unions' links with civil society. The bureaucratic hoops required before a strike can be considered a legal 'protected action' are Kafkaesque, and trade unions and individuals can be held liable for financial losses resulting from illegal strikes. Therefore strikes have become small, localised and limited to issues of contractual entitlements.

Labour withdrawal, the main weapon unions and workers have against capital and the state, no longer serve to strengthen national conversations beyond workplace contracts. The Vietnam moratorium would have been significantly weakened without the support of the unions. In 2005 the protest against the invasion of Iraq, despite being larger than the moratorium marches, had little effect. Arguably the threat of labour withdrawal can make the state listen, strengthen civil society and enrich national conversation

Without the possibility of a spontaneous strike, dissent evacuates the streets. Instead of striking or putting foot to pavement, dissenters are banished to virtual public space (the internet) where groups like Getup and Avaaz have formed. These groups do great things but different possibilities arise when the people claim physical public space.

Collectivism on the computer at home doesn't feel as powerful as standing with thousands of others because, even with personal political avatars, our bodies still exist. Labour withdrawal and protests use bodies to talk politics and create a collective physical form that booms into government ears whether they like it or not.

Strikes and protests used to open a fissure between past, present and future, between the state and the people, and allow possibilities for re-imagining the status quo. Strikes and protests may commence with small demands but can grow into something more imaginative. The May 1968 riots in Paris were ignited by boys demanding access to the girls' dorm rooms at the University,  and resulted in widespread social and political changes across France. Our own Vincent Lingiari led a strike about wage conditions which evolved into a land rights claim.

For better or worse these unpredictable possibilities are retarded in Australia because labour withdrawal and civil society have been forced to divorce and spontaneous strikes, where creativity resides, is extinguished by bureaucratic wrangling that chains any subsequent discourse to the 'core grievance' — to the entitlements in the contract.

At the same time the French unions' inability to accept changes demanded by their economic system seems futile, selfish and anachronistic. Many would agree with Slavoj Zizek, the Marxist philosopher, who stated that these current strikes are lead by the workers aristocracy, those with safe positions, protesting against personal reductions rather than advocating change. 'The truly needy and poor ones don't even dare strike.'

Reports say the frenzied French strikes will taper off this week. Not because the passion has died, or principles abandoned, but because it's holidays — time to enjoy the good life. Again — one can't help but laugh. Even if they shoot themselves in the foot they will not let go of the notion that France is its own separate planet where there is equal time for resistance and the good life. 

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France who has a background in law and political theory. Her essay 'The Mingled Yarn' won the 2010 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award. Flickr image by marcovdz.

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Nicholas Sarkozy, strikes, Vietnam, protest



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Existing comments

You can laugh as much as you like, you will not change the fact that France is where revolutions and change are initiated,and the rest of the world follow. These sorts of actions are unthinkable here or in Britain or the US where Governments trample on their people and get away with it. It was ironically a French President who said once that we were a nation of followers. I hope that is no longer true!!

johno | 26 October 2010  

"Many would agree with Slavoj Zizek, the Marxist philosopher"

Instead of using a Marxist, I am sure the author could have found a Catholic principle to expand her argument if she wanted to comment on social life.

The Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ should have led her to the true position of French social order.

The French Revolution which replaced God with man is the underlying problem of all the Western social problems.

Trent | 26 October 2010  

Terrific article Bronwyn. Thank you.

Helen Bergen | 26 October 2010  

Despite Bronwyn's gratuitous laughter at the French, her point about our rights is well made. Both Liberal and Labor have taken away the right to strike to the point where our industrial relations is on a par with Indonesia's or Iran's. On November 3 Ark Tribe will find out whether he is to be jailed for not disclosing to the ABCC what was said at a union meeting on safety issues. We are back in the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in this country. E,power workers with the right to strike! The right to organise! The right to collective action as determined by workers. "Protected action" means protected bosses and protected social inequalities.

Mike | 26 October 2010  

Thought provoking and well thought out - an important article. Thank you Bronwyn.

Kate Juliff | 26 October 2010  

When an issue becomes big enough there will be a national strike irrespective of legislation. It will be the people who go on strike not their Unions. This will circumvent it.

Ian | 27 October 2010  

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