Cocktail of anger lacks punch at Paris anti-reform protest
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Under a hot sun on the boulevard Montparnasse, with union-run mojito stands and a brass band playing "Hasta Siempre, Comandante", Paris’s latest anti-reform demo had an air of Havana. But something else, too, evoked Cuba: a decidedly insular feel.
The far-left CGT labour union called Thursday’s march with the explicit goal of kindling a “convergence of struggles”, bringing together disparate resistance to French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda into a lean, mean protest machine. That sort of united front – across lines of class, occupation and union affiliation – famously shut France down in May 1968 and again in the fall of 1995.
But judging by the numbers marching in Paris on Thursday – and the sheer dominance of CGT red, white and yellow flags in the demo’s sparse Parisian ranks after other major unions ignored its call to arms – that alchemy of anger remains elusive. Crowd counts for the Paris demo ranged from the authorities’ 11,500 estimate to the CGT’s 50,000.
“Everybody should take to the streets,” Virginie Schmidt, 43, a protesting railway worker told FRANCE 24. Schmidt’s colleagues were on strike Thursday for an eighth day this month, the first of three months of rolling work stoppages against Macron’s reform of the national SNCF rail company. “Even rail customers should take to the streets, even if they don’t have a struggle themselves. We should do a May 1968,” Schmidt says.
“It’s the people who have had it,” her colleague Karim, 28, chimes in. “It’s total exasperation. It’s not just the SNCF. It’s total exasperation. Things are forced through.”
Students, who are blockading a number of French universities, were a boisterous presence heading the march. “High schoolers, university students, the unemployed and employees! It’s all together that we can fight! Because it’s all together that we’re going to win!” they chanted, marching behind a banner that stretched across a full lane of the leafy Left Bank boulevard and read: “Students. Railworkers. Same Macron, same struggle."
Beyond those high-profile groups, Thursday’s protesters were an eclectic bunch – a little bit of everyone, with little being the operative word: Retirees, hospital workers, LGBT activists, undocumented migrants, young Communists singing “The Internationale”, Zadistes protesting protester evacuations on occupied land in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, affordable housing advocates, electric and gas utility workers, Paris airport employees, Carrefour supermarket employees, a postal worker atop a truck with a microphone telling the crowd: “Postal workers. Students. Same struggle.”
Some seemed to march to the beat of their very own drum: a lone older man’s sign advocated for Frexit. Apparent class clowns among the students, meanwhile, went off-piste with placards demanding “Fries in the canteen” or simply commenting “Vive lasagna!”
Nicolas Cassé, a Physics undergraduate who says he works “part-time” for the far-left France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party, suggests that banding together is key to tipping the balance of power in protesters’ favour. “Today, the thing the government is afraid of is the convergence of struggles. If everyone goes ahead in their own little corner, 10,000 students march, 10,000 railworkers march another day, whereas if we demonstrate all together there are hundreds of thousands of us at the same time, every day,” he says.
The 20-year-old recently demonstrated in support of striking Carrefour supermarket employees and noticed railworkers and other students joining in. “And that scares a lot of people, in particular the government, powerful people and businesses,” Cassé argues.
Nationwide, march figures on Thursday ranged from 119,500 (authorities) and 300,000 (unions), a world away from the heights of 2010 popular unrest against conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the retirement age. Police clocked the peak of those demos at 1.2 million protesters on a single day.
Thin march figures this time are the product not of indifference, but of diverging philosophies of protest; major unions simply are not convinced the “convergence” the CGT is selling can work. For some, the all-in, anything-goes ethic of Thursday’s protest effort muddles the message and makes it harder to effect real change.
“If it’s just a demonstration of exasperation or ‘anti-government’ without explaining why, that doesn’t work for us,” François Hommeril, the president of the CFE-CGC union, told Reuters. “To participate in a demonstration, we are very attentive about really agreeing on the slogan.”
“The confluence of struggles isn’t the CFDT’s cup of tea,” Laurent Berger, the head of that major moderate union, said last month. “For a simple reason, which is that it never leads to concrete results for workers.”
The CFDT has indeed already said it won’t join forces with the CGT for traditional labour rights marches on May 1.
And for Macron, who has staked his credibility not merely in France but internationally on his ability to push through long-mooted structural reforms at home, Thursday’s turnout is unlikely to give him pause.
It looks as if May ’68 will have to wait.