France: A tale of two protests

PARIS, France — As France's largest demonstrations in years seem to be dying down — lawmakers will vote on the pension reform they were protesting this week —  a deep sense of frustration remains.

Among the most visible and angry groups are union workers and violent protesters.

Although it might be tempting to assimilate the two crowds, which took the streets on the same days and were both protesting President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing policies, they actually are two very distinct groups.

Here are two pictures that help explain why.

The first crowd, below, is from an older generation. The demonstrators grew up in an era when French society was structured by ideologies, including communism.

Younger French sometimes mock these far-left parties and workers unions for their festive demonstrations, loud chants and red banners, but they are an important part of the French political culture and folklore.

For starters, they are particularly well-organized — as their recent massive demonstrations have shown. Within a few days, they organized gatherings of more than a million people nationwide, with hundreds of trucks and distributions of fliers with catchy and often witty slogans — my favorite being, “Grandma can you tell me story? I can’t, I have to go to work.”

But with their loud demonstrations, chants and flashy banners, union workers exist in a world so peculiar that it excludes many French people.

This second crowd, suburban youths, is not any more inclusive, but for a very different reason — these protesters can be violent.

French protests

Union workers demonstrate in Paris on Oct. 23. (Ben Barnier/GlobalPost)

Many of them are teenagers from less affluent families. They approach politics without ideology. Some of them are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were brought into France to rebuild the country after World War II. They tend to think that national institutions are not made for them and do not take them into consideration.

Unlike unionized workers, these teenagers do not have the power to block public transportation or disrupt gasoline supplies. So they resort to the most basic and brutal, yet available, political tool — violence.

French protests

A crowd of protesters in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, on Oct. 19. (Sohrab Monemi/GlobalPost)

In a way, they participate in France’s political life without even knowing it — when some of them set cars on fire, it is indeed a political act.

Of course, what they do is illegal and often reprehensible, especially when they target properties in their own neighborhoods.

But no matter how threatening they may be or may look on television, they are French citizens and potential voters. Will any mainstream party attempt to capture their energy for its political ends?

As President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government prepares to impose a reform seen by many as unfair, these two groups — unions and suburban youth — will have been seen, but perhaps not heard.

As for the average French person, who supports the protesters according to a recent BVA opinion poll that found 69 percent do, their discreet protests have been muted by the other groups’ shouts, fueling arguments that indeed only people with extreme positions could possibly oppose the reform.