The scuffle, the tension, the gas

 

The campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the French retirement age seemed to be petering out until this week’s intervention by students and oil workers. Now, though, the protests have become an outlet for a wider discontent, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC, Paris Correspondent

ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, a few hours after a crowd outside the French senate building, on the Left Bank in Paris, had dispersed, I stood at the side of the road talking to a group of protesters who were packing up their paraphernalia for the day. About a dozen activists and a couple of students who had joined the march now sat on the kerbside, smoking joints and taking in the sun.

Across the road, near the senate gates, a clutch of CRS riot police in their bulging black Michelin Man uniforms milled about, looking relaxed with their helmets off as they drew on cigarettes. The sky was a clear blue, the traffic and the local designer shops were returning to normal and the tense, volatile atmosphere that had hung over the city the previous day seemed to have dissipated.

Then, about half an hour after we started talking, the busy road that runs along the northern end of the Luxembourg Gardens went quiet again, and we saw a procession of about 200 flag-bearing marchers announce themselves with a cacophonous medley of chants and whistles. The march – unauthorised, I later learned – was coming towards the senate building, where the debate on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s contentious pension bill was in its final stages.

In an instant the riot police stubbed out their cigarettes, pulled down their visors, raised their shields and formed a line between the oncoming crowd and the senate gates. A TV crew started its camera rolling.

Stopped in their tracks, the first line of protesters stood nose to nose with the police and launched into a new chant (“All together, all together, ge-ner-al strike!”). They then turned right down a side street. But by this stage police reinforcements had spilled out of vans on nearby streets and were blocking the marchers’ secondary route, to prevent them reaching the busy boulevards to the north.

The mood grew tense. The group split, and I followed a large crowd making quickly for the nearest unblocked street. Seven or eight riot police then found themselves facing a crowd of about 50 yelling protesters, some of whom pressed their bodies against the police shields. Realising they were outnumbered and isolated, the officers reached for their tear-gas canisters and sprayed into the crowd. The yelling stopped straight away.

I was at an angle to the first line of protesters, but the breeze was strong enough to carry the gas. Its effect is a disorientating, suffocating sensation that leaves you choking for breath, your eyes stinging and your nose numb. To escape the cloying air, most of the group ran back towards the senate, where the worst-affected were already sitting on the road or leaning against walls.

“It’s burning,” moaned Juliette Mas, a middle-aged Parisian with a CGT union sticker, whose face was blotchy red. “We just tried to pass. I couldn’t breathe . . . I couldn’t see anything.”

And that was it. The scuffle, the tension, the gassing: it was all over in less than 15 minutes. The protesters, heeding their leaders’ pleas, backed off and contented themselves with some more slogans before breaking up about an hour later. The cars and the elegant women with their designer poodles again returned to the area. You could see that the protesters and the police were thinking much the same thing: how did that just happen?

MANY IN FRANCE have been asking themselves the same question about the week’s events. How did a campaign of opposition to Sarkozy’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 suddenly spill over into oil-refinery blockades, fuel shortages, school closures, car burnings and looting, presenting the government with its biggest crisis so far?

Ten days ago the campaign appeared to have run out of momentum, but pressure has been building for months. Trade unions, with the majority of public opinion on their side, have been gradually intensifying their opposition since June, with a series of strikes and mass protests bringing millions of people on to the streets in cities and towns across France. Support had come from nearly all sectors of the public service – transport workers, air-traffic controllers, postal officials, teachers, nurses and civil servants – but it was last week’s decision by two other groups, the oil workers and the students, to get involved that signalled the radicalisation of the movement.

By blockading all but one of France’s 12 refineries and disrupting supplies at dozens more depots, oil workers were able to cut off the flow of petrol to a third of pumps by the middle of this week, sending motorists into a panic and threatening to bring economic activity to a halt.

Gallingly for the government, public opinion has remained firmly with the protesters. “Clearly, they have public support,” says Frédéric Dabi, head of the political division at Ifop, a Paris polling organisation. “In all the polling we have done since the beginning of the campaign we’ve found that support for the strikes – the legitimacy of the strikes – ranges from 70 to 71 per cent. So we see very strong support among public opinion and from all segments of the French population, with the sole exception of UMP sympathisers.”

The French pensions debate is superficially straightforward. Although many people work beyond it, the minimum retirement age is 60. The government wants to raise this to 62 and to lift the age at which one can receive a full state pension from 65 to 67, arguing that without reform the pensions system would run up annual deficits of €50 billion by 2020.

The fuss may bemuse some foreigners, but the debate goes to the heart of a passionate and long-standing French debate about how to organise society. Nearly all of the protesters I met at each of the six marches have situated pensions along a decades-long continuum of acquis sociaux (social benefits) that are seen by the left as the milestones of French progress over the past century.

If they give in to Sarkozy’s policy reversal now, they ask, then how many other pillars of the French social model will be in jeopardy? As for Sarkozy’s argument that his proposed reform is modest by European standards, the protesters’ attitude was captured by Dominique Hollande, a 56-year-old Paris marcher from Picardy: “Just because your neighbour cuts off his finger doesn’t mean you should do the same thing.”

BUT THE PROTESTS have also grown into something more, feeding on general discontent with a president whose popularity ratings have languished at about 30 per cent for the past year. It has been striking how many placards have carried anti-Sarkozy invective and denunciations of his wider policy agenda. The brash, impulsive Sarkozy is vilified by the left as the man who celebrated his election at a chic Paris restaurant with his millionaire friends, doubled his salary on coming to power and now calls for sacrifice from the public. “Sarko, retire at 56,” read one hand-made poster bobbing above the crowd in Paris. Or on a poster in the window of a blockaded school this week: “F**k your reform.”

One of the intriguing subplots is that, for all its political clout, the French trade-union movement is in decline. Guy Groux, an economist at Sciences Po university in Paris, suggests that this is partly why the unions have been so keen to flex their muscles in recent years. French unions have some of the lowest membership rates in the western world, and they have only a third of the members they had in 1975. “Trade unionism is very weak, but it still has a strong ability to mobilise members,” says Groux.

The unions have also been weakened by a series of government initiatives that have diminished their power over the past decade. Not least of these is a Sarkozy law guaranteeing a minimum service on public transport during strikes, which has meant that, for most French people over the past 10 days, life has continued with less disruption than during previous general strikes. But Nicolas Vassal, a 23-year-old student who protested in Paris this week, says that this has been perversely helpful to the unions. “Because of that reform, non-strikers aren’t put out in the same way, so we can keep it going for longer,” he says.

Whoever prevails, the past week has at least renewed the legend of the French street and its central place in the country’s political culture. It has been unmistakable how many protesters have consciously imitated the young people on the barricades of May 1968. The chants, the clothes and the slogans have all been reminiscent of the iconic old photos.

But the timeline is longer than that. Many of the protesters see themselves rooted in an insurrectional tradition that runs from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune to the Resistance and all the way to 1995, when then president Jacques Chirac had to abandon his own attempt at pension reform after strikes paralysed the country. The power of the street is an untouchable principle, its legitimacy uncontested even by the unions’ fiercest critics.

“There are two histories of France: there’s a political history, but there’s also a social history,” says Frédéric Dabi. “This movement could be seen as a continuation of that history. You don’t see it elsewhere in Europe. I suppose it’s part of the exception française.”

In some respects this week’s confrontation is not merely between Sarkozy and the street but between two competing ideas of the very notion of French exceptionalism, its limits and its rewards. The skirmish over pensions will shortly come to an end. Petrol will flow again, trains will run on time and pupils will go back to school. But the conflict at its root will go on.

Students of protest

Students bolstered the protest turnout, and, just as importantly, their involvement spooked the authorities in a country where the sight of blockaded lecture theatres and teenagers confronting riot police evokes memories of the landmark events of May 1968. Few have forgotten that it was a powerful campaign by students that forced the last major government defeat at the hands of street protesters, when Dominique de Villepin had to abandon plans for a new work contract for young people in 2006.

While the sporadic violent incidents involving teenagers have made for good photographs, much more significant was the engagement of such large numbers of students with the campaign. Who knows how many are exercised by pensions, but with alarmingly high youth unemployment and overcrowded, underfunded universities, their own list of grievances is as long as any other group’s.

“Please write this,” said Balthazar Magny, a thoughtful 19-year-old, as red flares and drumbeats rose from Les Invalides on Tuesday night. “We’re not here to wreck anything. We know why we’re here. A lot of people are saying we don’t, but we do. It’s partly about pensions, but it’s about everything over the past few years.”