Ah, springtime in Paris. The flowers bloom, the glassware tinkles in sidewalk cafés… and marchers hit the streets in huge numbers. Amid banking scandals and a global downturn, 2009 has been shaping up as a particularly flamboyant year for protest actions. Already, in recent months, France has witnessed workplace and school takeovers, the kidnapping of managers by their employees, a university melee sparked by a tainted school election, a bed-ridden protest “march,” and the emergence of a young new poster boy for this widespread discontent, the “Red Postman.” And all that happened before May 1, the international Labor Day that put thousands of demonstrators on the streets in cities all over the world.
France’s most famous television presenter, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, staged a two-hour show on the theme “Crisis: Is a Revolution Coming Soon?”
France has such a long tradition of public protest that even tens of thousands of people on the march does not, by itself, grab much public attention. So demonstrators are often on the lookout for the iconic image or the novel tactic that will make the news. Climbing atop a massive statue of symbolic significance, like the one at the Place de la Nation, the end point of many marches, is one popular gesture. But lately, the French protest lexicon has grown more inventive. Here are some key words:
Boss-napping: This relic of 1970s labor radicalism is once again in vogue. Generally, employees of a company “visit” a boss’s office—the higher in the hierarchy, the better—to engage in unsolicited “negotiations.” In the U.S., you could imagine such a situation deteriorating into a showdown between pistol-packing workers and the local SWAT team. But in nearly gun-free France, it is a more civilized affair. Yes, hostage-takers sometimes confiscate their bosses’ phones—and even make threatening calls to their families—but they also sometimes serve café, pains au chocolat, and croissants as they explain their pressing desire to continue working. And the truth is, as uncomfortable as France’s ostensibly law-and-order government is about these kidnappings, they usually succeed, after a day or two, in securing small buyouts and stalling layoffs. Occasionally they even keep factories open. So far, nobody has been prosecuted.
Factory takeovers: These can be coordinated with a boss-nappings or independent of them. Employees occasionally loot or just sack the joint, but the real power comes from the implicit or stated threat to steal, sell, or destroy everything in the building. Negotiations tend to avert such outcomes.
Bleaching the ballots: This is a brand-new one, used only once to date. At Lyon 2 University, which has been occupied by students since March 4, students, staff, and teachers held an election to decide whether to reopen school. Before the ballots were counted, a small group of students wielding a bottle of laundry bleach attacked the ballot boxes in an effort to erase the votes. Instead, their suspicious behavior alerted the guards and a melee ensued involving tear gas, a fire extinguisher, and firecrackers. (At last word, the vote remained uncounted.)
The Bed-In: Facing imminent eviction from their Paris squat, a group of young adults posted a large message on the headboard of a double bed on rollers, then pushed it through the Sixth Arrondissement with two of their members laying in the bed. They had intended to march as far as the prefecture, where their petition was on file, but only made it as far as the elegant, tree-lined Boulevard des Invalides. (See photos and video of their preparations on their squatters’ blog.)
The Red Postman: Olivier Besancenot is a baby-faced, 35-year-old bicycle-riding mailman in a working-class neighborhood of northern Paris who has forged several fringe left parties into a new entity, the Anti-Capitalist Party. The ACP’s platform includes a ban on firings, increasing the minimum wage by one-third, and a $400 raise for all workers. (Less pragmatic, it calls for a nationalization of the banking and insurance sectors.) Rallying to the slogan “We’re not going to pay for their crisis,” the ACP threatens to further destabilize France’s center-left Socialist Party, which is perennially in disarray.
Besancenot himself has become a popular figure; numerous polls indicate that more than half of the electorate likes him, and about 10 percent would vote for him for president. He has managed to modernize the dour communist old guard into something cheeky, hip, and focused. The NPA’s Web site offers a welcoming video of colorful protesters with a soundtrack tune that mixes French traditional songs (with an accordion, no less) and childish Eminem-like keyboard riffs.
Revolution: This word has a long bloody history in French politics, and cannot be tossed around with the same insouciance as it is in the United States. A poll published April 30 indicated that 66 percent of the French share the view of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin that there is a very real “risk of social explosion” in the coming months. France’s most-famous television presenter, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, hosted an entire two-hour live show on the theme “Crisis: Is a Revolution Coming Soon?” In a taped segment for that show Besancenot described the sentiment of some of the working-class folks he knows: “We don’t know if we’ll win, but we’ll resist.” The red mailman may be in the spring of his political life, but he already knows how to deliver the message of discontent.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris.