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‘The climate won’t wait’: French students skip school to protest

Jacques Demarthon, AFP | Youths, mostly high-school and college students, demonstrate near the French Ministry for Ecology in Paris to protest against climate change, February 15, 2019.

Under a bright blue sky on an unseasonably warm February day, several hundred high school and university students skipped class to demonstrate in front of the French ministry for the environment in Paris.

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“Look at your Rolex, it’s time for a revolt,” read the sign brandished by 15-year-old Pauline. It’s not her first time demonstrating. She came out for a march for women’s rights, and she plans to keep demonstrating for climate action over the coming weeks.

“I hope the French parliament realises what all French people want: That they respect their climate accord commitments,” she said.

Hers wasn’t the only creative sign:

“Save a panda, tax a banker.”

"Don't go breaking my Earth."

“You can’t buy a new planet during the sales.”

"There is no planet B."

Another asks simply for “cash for the ecological transition”.

At the heart of the demonstration is a deep disappointment with France’s failure to fulfil its commitments under various climate agreements. The protesters aren’t buying rhetoric about stimulating the economy.

“We want climate change to be taken into account. Of course the economy is important and makes a country prosper. But to have a country, you need a planet. And if we destroy it, there won’t be an economy at all,” said Zelia, a high schooler.

University student Luke Schilling wants action. “The truth is, all the legal tools already exist," he says. "What we want is for them to be applied concretely. It’s very nice to organise a One Planet Summit in France to show that we are leaders on the international stage, but if we don’t respect our own commitments, then what’s the point?”

It’s the first significant showing from French students in the #FridaysForFuture movement that has taken off in recent weeks.

The larger movement began in August with Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s weekly protests in front of her country's parliament. She inspired tens of thousands of students in Sweden, Australia, Germany and in Belgium, among others.

In Brussels on January 24, 35,000 secondary school students marched on the European Parliament in the city’s biggest student demonstration in recent memory.

Friday’s demonstration in Paris had a relatively modest turnout of 300 to 400 students, but they are getting organised quickly.

Students have pledged to join their peers around Europe in weekly demonstrations leading up to March 15, when Thunberg has called for a global strike.

Louis Mallet, a science and environmental policy student at Jussieu and Sciences Po, is a member of Youth for Climate. The French branch of the global network is only a few weeks old, but the group is trying to organise efforts around the country so they present a united front and a coordinated message.

“It’s only just begun this past week. We’re putting the tools in place. Social media is bringing in a lot of new people every day. And you’ll really start to see the scale of all this next week. We’ll call for all the local chapters to go on strike next Friday. […] It should be massive. We’re building up to March 15.”

Students have formed a working group to decide on a set of weekly demands.

This week there are several demands: declare “a state of climate emergency”; stick to France’s Paris Accord commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent per year; and rewrite the constitution to encode environmental protection and social solidarity in the country’s guiding text.

The plan for next week is to issue a new demand on Monday February 18, giving the government the week to respond before the next rally.

Civil disobedience to protest government inaction

The working group formed by students from high schools and university student unions around the Paris area drew a direct link to the ongoing Yellow Vests protests.

“The Yellow Vest movement is demanding social justice, and it has made a power shift possible […] We invite you to join the Yellow Vests every Sunday in their protests against this system that is ravaging the environment. Green Friday, Yellow Saturday…”

The Yellow Vest demonstrations began as a protest against a hike in a fuel tax, but has transformed over the past few months into a movement for economic justice.

Students present on Friday weren’t ready to embrace all protest tactics. They are still trying to define their movement and the types of civil disobedience that will work best.

“We might do an unplanned protest. Maybe a peaceful roadblock,” said Nathan, a high-school student. He and his green-bandana-clad friends had some red lines though: no vandalism or rioting.

Nour, another high schooler, is opposed to blockades. “We want to work with the government. It’s our government. It’s not the people against the government. That won’t work.”

“We really want to try to stay one hundred percent pacifist,” said her friend Solveig. She had a stuffed polar bear on her shoulders holding a sign saying "I want to live".

The atmosphere at Friday’s rally was enthusiastic, hopeful and very calm. A few students tried to jay-walk in front of some stopped traffic. A few others painted the sidewalk with fluorescent green paint, while others at the periphery of the gathering chatted amiably with the police officers.

After all, said Schilling, “civil disobedience isn’t necessarily spectacular or violent.”

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