For the past few months, people throughout France, people of all backgrounds have been united by one thing: strikes. These strikes have come in response to a recent, unpopular law that implements an increase in the minimum retirement age and changes in pension plans across the country. The strikes that I saw throughout my semester abroad in Spring 2023 have reshaped the way that I think about protests.
In the past few years, there have been a number of notable protests throughout the United States. Perhaps the protests most comparable to those in France are those by workers seeking unionization in different fields. Attempts to unionize corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, among other companies of many sizes, have particularly grown in popularity. Yet, when workers stopped working in these scenarios, the response of the American people has been vastly different from the responses of French citizens.
When protests and strikes occur in the United States, I have noticed that the response from many consumers is often one of frustration and inconvenience over losing access to services. The American attitude tends to hope for the strikes to end as quickly as possible, regardless of their results. There is little concern about how the strikes end, and more concern with when they will end. This also means that, for many Americans, the plight of the striking worker is of no concern. Sympathy for American strikers is sparse in my experience, as most people prefer to go about their days normally rather than have them be interrupted by a strike.
This is one example, but it represents a principle common in America: if you do not like what is happening to you, it is your job to fix it, not somebody else’s. One of the most common American principles is “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” the idea that no one owes you any help and that it is best to do things on your own. This idea seems to carry over to the American sentiments regarding protests. Oftentimes, Americans do not want to hear about or be burdened by the problems of others, which leads protests to often be ineffective or a point of contempt for people who are not involved with the issues being protested.
In France, the mentality surrounding protests is quite different. When French citizens who were frustrated with their monarchy stormed the Bastille and began the French Revolution in 1789, a new mindset of French thinking was born. In France, it is accepted that power lies with the people, and their leaders should respect them fully. If one person is suffering, it shows that society is suffering. When protests occur in a field of work in France, it is not uncommon for people of other workforces to join together and protest with the original group, mostly because of their belief that the rights of the lowest people should be respected.
Another large difference between French and American mentalities is how they try to bring about change. In the United States, people are often urged to show their support for an issue through elections. There is a common mindset that one must wait for the election cycle to vote out a politician that does not represent their views, rather than encouraging change in the moment. The prevailing idea is that ineffective politicians will never change their minds and must be replaced, only giving opportunities for action every 2, 4, or even 6 years, depending on the office.
Yet in France, the idea that politicians can, and should, change their minds based on the concerns of the public is very present. In France, it is seen as the duty of politicians to listen to the voices of their constituents and act on them, not just to stick to the platforms on which they ran. Because of the multiplicity of political parties, there is never one political enemy, and every party has the chance to be allies toward a common struggle, meaning that protests often do create political changes.
With such different mindsets, it makes sense that the goals of protests are often different in the United States and France. In the United States, protests are seen as a way to bring attention to an issue, but not the actionable part of the movement. In France, protests are viewed as the part of the movement that forces change. Understanding these differences shows why the functions and views on protests in each country are so drastically different.
It is hard to say if one way is better than the other, as both mindsets of protesting are a product of their environments. Yet I do think there is something important in viewing the government as a vessel of change that listens to what the people are saying. Though the protests in France do not always change the minds of the government, I find there to be something very hopeful in the notion that if enough people say something, they will be listened to at that moment, not a few years down the line.
Sophie Ulm pictured in France