Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sometimes You Have to Be There

I try to follow the French news closely, but I'm not sure I would have noticed the strike of ambulance drivers had it not been for Polly-Vous Français. Polly, who is in Paris while I must follow the news via the Internet, stumbled on the 500 ambulances, many unoccupied but with their sirens blaring. The drivers are protesting the rise in fuel prices, which damages their livelihood. We feel their pain, as they, in better times, minister to ours.

Someone should write a book about the highly variegated French style of protest. The symbolic massing of tools of a particular trade--ambulances, in this case--in some highly visible location is one. I recall once stumbling upon a demonstration of sheep raisers on the Champ de Mars, which was filled for the occasion with bleating sheep. I don't think I would have known about it if I hadn't happened to be there. The papers barely mentioned it. Another time there was a strike of interns. I encountered hundreds of them in white jackets with stethoscopes around their necks, somewhere in the vicinity of the Ecole Militaire.

There is often something festive about these strikes. American picketers, by contrast, frequently seem bored, marching up and down with their signs proclaiming unfairness. Even when protesting there is a manifest need to "get the job done," even if the job for the moment is to close down the plant. French strikers need to be noticed, and first of all by le pouvoir, hence the frequent choice of Paris as stage. And often their need to express is directed, after the government, at the public at large, as though nothing good can come of private protest unless it is taken up by la volonté générale, the sole legitimating force. Even if the harangue is in the form of wailing sirens, it is le peuple that is exhorted to make the protesters' cause their own. The problem, of course, is that the sympathies of le peuple are fickle, easily bestowed and easily forgotten. It is almost as if the theatrical pleasures of French protest were intended to be their own reward. Often they have to be, since practical results do not follow.

5 comments:

kirkmc said...

It was on the news on France 2 last night...

Festive? Burning an ambulance is festive?

(Reminds me of one of my favorite band names: Crispy Ambulance.)

Kirk

Unknown said...

My floors are being sanded, hence my TV is not available, so I missed last night's broadcast (though I did watch TF1 via the Internet and didn't see anything about ambulances). Polly's piece didn't mention the burning of any ambulances.

kirkmc said...

Yes, at the end of the piece on France 2 they showed a shot of an ambulance burning at a carrefour...

Far from festive.

Kirk

David in Setouchi said...

Kirkmc, you know that journalists will always show what went wrong, not what was festive...

A protest can be both festive and have a burning ambulance, it's not a monolithic thing.

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