The call to armes – a reflection

By: Eva Kristinova (Sciences Po Toulouse, France)

Hello, it’s me again. This post will be a little different from my usual content, but, I hope, interesting nevertheless. What I wish to share with you is something that has become a constant feature of my life in France, something I soon learned was simply an inevitable part of French culture, history and people. Just as a heads-up though, I do not wish to fuel any stereotypes here. This is simply something that I’ve observed, and upon discussion found that my French peers freely, even proudly admit to. So, here are a few reflections on the culture of protest in France.

The Revolutionary Spirit – a History

When you think of protests and popular uprisings in France, I would not be surprised if the first thing you think of is the French Revolution. It was by far the biggest historical development in French protest culture, and one which remains equally important to this day. The French people look proudly at this time in their history, as a time when the people came together to stand up against oppression and tyranny, and chose for the first time to shape their future for the better. It was an awakening of the people, and one which inspired many more such developments throughout the world. It is therefore no surprise that this fighting spirit was mobilised time and again since that initial rise, whether we are talking about the second revolution of 1848, the outrage of the Dreyfus affair, or the more recent gillets jaunes. The fact is that since this revolutionary spirit first arose, it has never really been completely extinguished.

The Legacy

You might be wondering what the point of that brief history lesson might be, but don’t worry, I’m getting there. The point is exactly what that last sentence stated – the fighting spirit has never been extinguished. The people are always there, and they are always watching, and when something problematic arises, they are not afraid to have their voices heard. I have been a witness of this ever since first arriving in Toulouse in September – this time in connection with the infamous pass sanitaire (now pass vaccinal).

Now, whatever your thoughts (or mine) might be on the subject of mandatory Covid vaccination, I have to admit, the people just don’t give up. Every Saturday, they take to the streets, holding their banners and their megaphones, marching through the heart of the city like clockwork. To someone who has never (and I mean never) seen or been to a protest before, it looked quite intimidating with rows of police cars lining the side streets and officers in dark heavy uniforms holding shields. But although a few of the frontline individuals can be loud and excited, I soon realised that violence really wasn’t the order of the day. People were just walking, holding their banners in the air, sometimes chatting amicably with one another, and the principal challenge of the police was really just redirecting annoyed drivers who forgot that, yes, once again it was Saturday.

That is not to say that you don’t see some pretty bizzare things once in a while. For example, on my one-day visit to Montpellier, I saw a similar protest in the main square with one specific difference. Here the protest was not loud, in fact there was no talking, few banners. The message was in the costume – all 50 or so were wearing white overalls, the kind you see medical professionals wear in testing centres, with the ominous masks associated with the Black Death period. The marchers were taking a stand in a much more unusual way, using their entire bodies to send a message of discontent.

Protesters in Montpellier dressed in medical overalls and death masks

More recently, I came across another Saturday march (this was after I had been away for a while so I completely forgot it was normal), this time in support of the current protests in Canada. Once again, there were a few vocal individuals at the front, with the rest of the parade marching peacefully with a few French and Canadian flags here and there.

So, what is the lesson? I often heard it said that people in the UK complain about everything (most often the weather). This might be true, but I would say it is equally true of the French. Except one thing – despite the beauty and richness of their language, there are no words in France. There are marches, there are protests, there are revolutions. The only words you might hear: Aux armes!

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