Why Protest-Happy France Has Snubbed The Occupy Movement (For Now)

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A protestor holds a placard during an anti-capitalist demonstration, in Paris, Saturday, October 15, 2011. (Photo: Thibault Camus / AP)

An excellent story by Reuters just went up today describing why it is a people known to be as siege-prone, strike-happy, and demonstration-loving as the French have not followed Greek, Spanish, American, British, Indian, and other protestors staging relatively successful Occupy movements these days. The piece notes how that docility doesn’t really seem to jibe with the rambunctious, defiant French attitudes that fueled the May, 1968 revolt, 1995 strikes against pension reform (ultimately victorious), similar action opposing a hike in retirement age a year ago (in vain, as it turned out)—as well as historically monumental uprisings like the Revolution (a Hall of Fame-er of its kind) and The Commune (a doomed battle that still looms large in the global left’s iconography). So given the French penchant for taking to the streets to battle injustice—and especially prejudice suffered by collective good for the sake of private, individual interests—why hasn’t France produced its own significant Occupy scene?

The main Reuters take is that—for a variety of reasons—the French haven’t felt the painful bite of economic slow-down as much as worse hit societies have. That’s in part due to the padding effects of the same French social welfare system that now risks seeing significant cut-backs, as the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy rolls out austerity measures in response to the euro zone debt crisis—and seeks to ward off what may be a cut in France AAA rating at the very moment markets appear ready to widen their attacks on Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy to France. Given the nation’s persistent wariness of capitalism—and culturally tenacious resentment of the super-wealthy who seem to just grow richer—it probably won’t take too much belt-tightening before French protestors, too, mobilize in far greater numbers to join the community of Occupy nations.

But there is another interesting opinion on why the Occupy movement has remained embryonic here. Julien Bayou, an activist, organizer, and leader of what we referred to in a 2009 article as France’s New Strike Force thinks there may be another factor at work. He says that while the average French citizen is no happier with the dire economic situation, financial crisis, or market organization allowing the ultra-rich to pocket the vast majority of wealth being created–often as a direct result of investment bets making the euro debt crisis worse—there is a political coherency in the current French restraint. With the exception of Tory-governed Britain, Bayou notes, most nations that produced large Occupy movements are ones in which leftist or governments (“liberal” in the U.S.) have responded to turmoil by embracing austerity without shaking the fat cats and market slicks by the ankles as many people want and expect. Pain has only been directed towards the largest collective target, and spared the rich entirely. That’s been the case under Obama in the U.S., with Zapatero in Spain, as well as with leftist governments in Greece or Portugal—all of which has left protestors doubly cheesed off at getting conservative responses to crisis from leaders lifted to power on leftist promises.  And as Bayou he noted in our Oct. 6 post, Sarkozy (and Berlusconi) may be getting a pass on his implementation of policies the public hates because people feel obliged to admit those are the kinds they voted Sarkozy into power to apply. The French, in other words, are being just as logical as Greeks, Spaniards, and Americans, but with the opposite result.

 “These kinds of protests form when people feel their political choices have been ignored or betrayed by people they voted to office, and have left them no further recourse in airing their concerns than to take to the streets,” Bayou says. “In countries like France, people are angered at the results of a rightist government applying rightist policies–meaning they’re not angry they got what they asked for, but disgusted with the results of it. As a result, most French people today are more inclined now to express their discontent during upcoming elections, rather than the streets as their only option. In countries like Spain and Greece, by contrast, people are angered because leftist governments are applying rightist policies–creating the feeling the public’s voice and will were ignored, and leaving them no outlet for expressing their unhappiness than the street until their anger is noted and acted upon.”

Does that logic mean Sarkozy risks facing no anger from the French street in the coming weeks and months if—as expected–the situation gets darker, and the public feels the pinch of austerity even worse? Don’t count on it. With campaigning for next spring’s elections now getting under way, Socialist candidate François Hollande is leading in polls on assurances there are other, fairer ways of cutting debt than Sarkozy is taking—including tapping into the growing profits and ample resources of people who Occupy movements are targeting elsewhere. In other words, don’t expect current French reason withstand famous French passion as the crisis hardens, and the chances grow of an Occupy front in France forming in the streets as a prelude to a storming of the ballot box.