Amidst French labor protests over the increase in retirement age, Steven Hill, author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, searches for an American counterpart to this sort of populist demonstration. In his recent dispatch from the Continent, Hill asks where American anger is over flat wages, lack of health care coverage, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Read his post from Washington Monthly below:
FRENCH PROTESTERS: “WHERE ARE YOU AMERICANS?”
The headlines are ablaze with reports of strikes in France, and the strikes are getting increasingly intense. As the date arrived for the Senate to vote on the legislation to increase the retirement age (the lower house, the National Assembly, already had passed it), things began coming to a head. Protesters blockaded Marseille’s airport and strikers shut down fuel depots, which in turn caused a quarter of the nation’s gas stations to run out of fuel. More young people joined the fray, barricading high schools and taking to the streets nationwide. Some of them were masked and hooded, raising fears of a replay of the banlieue youth riots back in November 2005 in which 10,000 cars were burned. Vehicles have been set on fire and overturned. Police turned to teargas and helicopters to try and control the situation as the Senate vote loomed (update: the Senate passed the legislation on Friday October 22, but the unions, students, and other protesters say their direct actions will continue).
A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Paris, things were not quite this heated but you could feel the momentum building, could see that the kindling piling up. I witnessed one protest of sorts; I was standing on a street corner, on a beautifully sunny fall day in Paris, when all of a sudden the boulevard was filled with hundreds of rollerbladers! They whisked by in earnest, chanting slogans, some of them were dressed in colorful wigs, brightly painted faces, theatrical props and costumes. Their protest didn’t feel threatening, in fact the mood mostly was festive. It was kind of like watching a Critical Mass bicycle ride in San Francisco or other US cities. The faces of the protesters reflected a mixture of joy and determination, but the carnival atmosphere in no way diminished the seriousness of their challenge to the political authorities. The street was paralyzed and motorists were honking their horns.