To much of the world, strikes are as French as wine, cheese or extramarital affairs. But France's dirty little secret is that industrial action has long helped perpetuate the status quo rather than overturn it. Now the art of protest is undergoing a revolution (another French tradition) as a small group of social activists uses creativity, humor and media savvy to draw the kind of attention it once took millions of marchers to muster. And here's the really radical thing: France's youthful demonstrators aren't just winning support for their various causes they're challenging the very social and economic pact that has defined the country for the past 60 years.
That cozy post World War II arrangement, in which the state has regularly arbitrated between big business and unions, may have helped those three groups, but it has too often ignored wider French society. The system has made reform nearly impossible and is now "sclerotic," according to Julien Bayou, 29, one of the half-dozen or so people at the core of France's new protest movement. "Thirteen percent of people in France live in poverty, youth unemployment is above 25%, and the number of people who can't keep up with the price of rent and food continues to rise. We're caught in the middle of all that, so we had to find a more efficient way to deal with it than the usual method of marching with sad faces in the rain."
Beginning about four years ago, Bayou and buddies Manuel Domergue and Lionel Primault identified a handful of specific problems that thousands, if not millions, of people face every day. Then they created groups dedicated to those individual causes, with perhaps a dozen full-time members running each. Every group comes up with creative and often wickedly funny new ways to focus attention to their issue, drawing in supporters and hordes of journalists who don't want to miss a good story. It has proved wildly successful. "What you have is a small number of brilliant people taking up problems that may seem marginal compared to the broader socio-economic debates going on, but which it turns out a lot of people are very concerned with," explains Guy Groux, a specialist in French social and labor conflict for the National Center for Scientific Research. "It's a real 2.0 movement in being able to project a far larger image and produce a much bigger reaction than such a small initial protest base previously allowed."
If it sounds a lot like France has just discovered the type of protests that have been used in places like the U.S. and Britain for years, that's partly true. It's also true that previous generations of French protesters have taken on single issues. But that has nearly always been as part of a mass movement. "Think of the feminists, the antiracism movement, the defenders of the needy even the union demos that used to end by marchers helping themselves to whatever they found on supermarket shelves. All these things were earlier manifestations of what we're seeing with these collectives only with much larger bases, and nowhere near the media and communication sophistication," says Groux. In some ways the movement harks back to the early 20th century absurdist art of the Dadaists in places like Zurich and Paris. Like the Dadaists, modern day avant-gardistes work in small groups and set out to shock. But they also want to change France.
Central to the movement is the handful of single-issue collectives Bayou and his fellow activists have founded. Take Black Thursday, which is named in a wink to the housing crisis faced by thousands of university students and young French workers for the day France's best-known classified real estate supplement comes out. The group stages high profile squatting campaigns of empty state- and municipal-owned buildings. Last month, for example, 10 Black Thursday squatters theatrically moved out of a disused building for handicapped students they had occupied since January. That's how long it took to get municipal and Education Ministry authorities to promise that the site would be renovated and used for housing as intended.
Sister collective Generation Precarious has sent dozens of white-masked youths into the shops and offices of some of France's best known companies to denounce firms who use free student interns instead of hiring more workers. Bayou says he first got the idea of founding the association after seeing a cascade of responses to a single Internet forum post lamenting such abuse. Though Generation Precarious only has 10 full-time members, its demonstrations, advertised over e-mail and via social media sites, attract hundreds. Two years of protests pushed the government to decree that companies must pay interns who work longer than three months, or who have their internship renewed.
Then there's the fancifully named group the Call and the Pickax, which wants the state to stop profitable supermarkets increasing prices on food. At a prearranged time its members gather in a supermarket aisle, help themselves to the food for sale and hold a "free" picnic for financially squeezed shoppers. Somehow, television cameras and photographers always seem to be on hand.
The biggest media coup so far came in April when Save the Rich, which denounces a system it says is rigged to keep the wealthy and powerful in their privileged positions, publicized its facetious demand for a minimum wage for rich people by barging in on a swanky Rotary Club lunch honoring Jean Sarkozy son of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a rising political star in his own right. With a boom-box blaring the theme music from the series Dallas, Save the Rich members handed Sarkozy fils an award for "Best Daddy's Boy" and congratulated him on his work to protect France's cosseted élite. Video of the encounter ran on French TV for days. "The idea is to call attention in a fun and festive way to concrete problems and [the] unfair situations a lot of people face, but few think they can contest," says Karima Delli, a Black Thursday and Save the Rich member who was elected to the European Parliament on an environmental ticket in June. "Unlike earlier protest movements, ours isn't beholden to any party. Our supporters range from centrists to extreme leftists."
Comprised primarily of thirtysomethings with advanced degrees, the multiplying collectives try to put politicians on the spot by spelling out plausible solutions to the biggest issues facing the country. Since his election in 2007, President Sarkozy has pushed through a wide array of measures designed to fix some of those problems labor flexibility, opportunities for young graduates, hiring incentives which French politicians have been unwilling or unable to tackle for decades. But Sarkozy's reforms have rarely delivered all they promised, and continue to ignore some problems. With young French so frustrated and angry, it's little wonder that the new protest movement is growing in popularity. "We had little choice but to step into that void and get something done ourselves, because it was clear we were going to be left to rot as these older forces focused on their usual agendas," Bayou says. While unions are the movement's natural allies, organized labor is not the answer: "Unions represent less than 5% of the workforce, and average member age is over 50. And, unlike us, they tend to be morose, boring, preachy and usually lose."
Bayou, Delli and their friends say they're not out for revolution, or even to impose their philosophy. They suggest changes not from any deep-seated ideological position but to get people talking. They want in on the game like everyone else, they say only in a viable, sustainable way. They want to help everyone from average middle-class folk to the marginalized residents of France's blighted housing projects. Delli, who grew up in a poor area herself, says that's why the movement cuts across class and racial lines. "Our array of single-issue causes actually looks more like a checklist of problems like economic chaos, mass youth unemployment, global warming and falling expectations that this generation is having to face for the first time," says Delli. "New challenges require new responses." And in France, it helps if it's done with a little flair.