France’s “Other” Sport

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The French are passionate soccer fans (but most of my friends aren’t; so much for stereotypes). One night on my way home from a friend’s apartment, I heard random bursts of synchronized cries every two corners I passed. Seeing a dozen people standing outside a crowded bar, their eyes glued to the televisions inside, I learned that the cheers in the usually quiet and discreet city of Paris were due to the Paris Saint-Germain match against Chelsea.

The next morning, newspapers exposed the faces of David Luiz and Thiago Silva, Brazilians (of course) who play for PSG, declaring their status as last night’s heroes for scoring the finals goals that saved Paris from losing to Chelsea.

Yet, as far as I’ve witnessed, there’s another “sport” that gets French people just as excited: protesting. I jokingly call it a sport for the frequency and passion with which it is practiced here. I kid you not that I have witnessed a little over ten protests or strikes during my stay in France so far.

This will not be a cultural analysis of the different forms of French protests and the role they play as an essential cornerstone of what makes France, France. As you probably know, the French have been through not only one but several major revolutions and that, unlike Americans, they keep great distance from the idea of preserving and following a constitution written centuries ago. Instead, I’ll narrate a couple of the moments when I’ve either witnessed or heard of protests.

Why not begin with yesterday. I was in class learning about the history of the Parisian metro when my French professor remarked: “… and as you’ve seen we have strikes that… wait, have we not had a public transit strike this year yet? Wow! You’re lucky for not having to deal with that.” Her train of thought was akin to, “Have you not seen the leaves falling from trees this autumn? I can’t believe it hasn’t happened this season!” and her face expressed surprise as if she had been told it wouldn’t rain for the next two weeks in Paris.

Indeed I haven’t fallen victim to metro strikes, but my professor’s comment reminded me of my first introduction to this French peculiarity. Last summer, a French pen pal told me that trains hadn’t been running for a couple of weeks as a result of a workers’ strike. Living in New York City at the time, I could not imagine such a thing. No trains? How did people get around? I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, having to arrive at work in midtown Manhattan from Astoria every morning without taking a train. Not feasible. The funny part is remembering how my friend called these strikes “boring” because they happen too often.

One or two months after, I read in someone’s study abroad blog that she was having major difficulties with metro strikes in Paris. Her classes kept being canceled as a result of them, and she risked not receiving credits at her American university if she missed more than a certain amount of hours per semester. Now that’s reason enough to be concerned about a train strike. Her story made me consider the possibility seriously but, knock on wood, it has not crossed my path. But life has not been strike-free. I often get emails from TGV (high-speed train) letting me know that unfortunately there will be no food on board because the workers went on strike.

In Paris, I bumped into the most bizarre and amusing protest I’ve witnessed when heading home from a stroll by the Eiffel Tower (basic tourist routine). A few police cars and motorbikes drove by and along came a very long line of cars and even trucks that honked continuously while driving at a very low speed. It was a creative protest setup that attracted major attention.

I stood on the corner observing, not understanding, until I read a banner stuck to the front of a truck which read, “Je suis pris pour un con par Macron” (Macron has taken me for an idiot). I appreciated the rhyme but could still not understand the conflict.

Once at home, I googled Macron and discovered that he is the recently new appointed Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Data, and that driving schools were protesting against his new law proposal, which is referred to as “la loi Macron.” One of its propositions aims to allow people to work (more, although most stores here are closed) on Sundays. Let’s just say that labor laws in France are quite different from those we find in America.

It may have been a bit hard to cross the streets with all the cars but I made it home alright. Yet there was another day when I could not arrive home because of a protest. My neighborhood seems to be a popular field for this sport’s practice because it has plenty of government buildings, and I happen to live right in front of one. On this day, when arriving at the block where I live, a police officer told me:

“You cannot go through this avenue past this point, ma’am. You must go around the block by making a left here.”

“But I live right on this block, monsieur. My building is that one,” I replied, pointing to where I live.

He asked for proof of residency but I had none on me.

“Then I can’t let you pass, I’m sorry. You must ask for someone to come fetch you.” 

I contacted my host mom but no one was home. The entire block was surrounded by highly geared police, and I assumed they were protecting the government building from protesters. I stood there trying to find a solution. I don’t even remember anymore what this protest was about, whether it was the one led by the union of medical workers, educators or air traffic controllers.

A man holding a recording camera on his shoulder tried persuading the same policeman to let him pass. 

“I’m not going to use the camera,” he claimed.

The policeman looked at him as if asking, “Do you really think I’m dumb?” and proceeded to kindly ask him to go around the block. Finally, I approached him again and explained my situation, showing him my keys. He called another policeman who asked me to point out exactly which one was my building.

“I’m going to ask for clearance,” he informed me.

He walked into the police van next to us. Thankfully, he “received permission” and let me get home. So much for living in front of a French government building.

It does impress me that the French find so much energy and will to keep protesting against society’s endless problems, and I wonder if it indeed works. To finish with something a Parisian friend once said to me, “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t either protested or marched here. Me, I prefer walking around the city by myself; it’s much faster.”