Politics in America has been complex, particularly in these last few weeks since a controversial airstrike killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian military general. With worries about another World War, the third presidential impeachment in American history and the debut caucus of the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, it’s easy to focus just on American politics. However, the United States is not the only country in the world struggling with political unrest. France, it seems, is a permanent resident on every world traveler’s bucket list with good reason. The country boasts some fantastic destinations like the historic Normandy Beaches, the sunny seaside city of Marseilles and, the most popular of them all, Paris. But while France is a hub of things to do for tourists from all over the world, recently, the destination has had to disappoint. The Louvre, the former chateau of French king Philippe Auguste and now the most visited museum in the world, did not open its doors on Friday due to a strike, much to the chagrin of thousands of its would-be visitors. The closure comes as a part of a much larger movement across France. Last year the gilets jaunes, “yellow vests,” took to the streets of France on Saturdays. Their goal? A reversal of a deal brokered by President Emmanuel Macron that raised the prices of diesel gasoline. The price hike was an attempt to dissuade people from driving vehicles that consumed diesel gas and to encourage the use of public transport. It was a necessary step in order to reduce France’s CO2 emissions in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.
As nice as it is to encourage the use of public transport, it just isn’t going to work for those who aren’t wealthy enough to live in city centers with great metro systems. Even after Macron’s swift reversal of the decision, protesters continued their march, claiming that Macron was an elitist and did not represent his everyday working citizens. The yellow vest movement died down after several months but returned with a fervor in December 2019. This time they had company. One of Macron’s key campaign points was to reform France’s pension system. Under the former system, France had 42 different pension plans that varied by career and would result in different retirement ages for those of differing occupations. His new idea was to create one single pension plan for all of France, one that would create equality across the board for those of all different domains of work. This, however, was not how the rest of France saw it. By changing the system, Macron, in the eyes of French workers, would make some people work longer only to receive the same amount of money in the end. Unlike the yellow vest movement, which was largely comprised of populists who felt that the government only really catered to the wealthy elites, this strike has people from all occupations and economic statuses, including workers in transportation, museum attendants, teachers and even members of the Paris Opera’s orchestra. While the yellow vests focused their protests on Saturdays (because they were working the rest of the week), this new protest has been an everyday event. I studied in Paris, France in the spring of last year, right as the yellow vest movement was gaining real traction. My day-to-day life remained largely unaffected; however, on the days of the protests, their presence was very apparent. In an attempt to contain the protesters and keep them from disrupting important landmarks, the French government closed certain metro stops. So long as you didn’t need to change lines at a closed station and you kept your distance from the protests, it wasn’t entirely noticeable. On the other hand, these new protests are far more rattling for daily life in France, especially in Paris. Hope College student Michaela Stock (’20) is studying for a full year in Paris. She recounts, “Since I arrived in Paris in the beginning of September, there have been transportation strikes. However, on December 5, a severe strike with no end date started. It‘s the largest industrial walk out since 1995.” While one could drive, walk or even scooter to where they need to be in Paris, the metro is quite arguably the fastest and most cost-efficient way of navigating anywhere in or out of the city. Thus, with all of the metro workers striking and the system almost entirely out of order, tensions were running high.“The energy in the city was terrible when the strikes began,” Stock says. “When you crack its fairytale façade, Paris tends to be a little cold and grumpy on the daily, but this strike made everything worse. Everyone was on edge, tense, and at times aggressive.” With intracity travel a nearly impossible feat, most of Stock’s classes were moved online to prevent the need of having to leave home and face the worsening situation in the streets.
Now, just over a month since the initial outcry, the strikes continue, though Stock says, “I’m happy to report that the air in the city is much lighter… and many metro lines are running limitedly throughout the week.” Aside from its impact on transportation, the pension strikes have claimed two more victims: business and the arts. Stock explains, “Artistic shows, such as plays and concerts, are still happening, though their attendance rates are regretfully low. Sales at small businesses have gotten so low that some may have to close their doors because of the strike.” It’s clear that the pension strikes have an unprecedented effect on life throughout France, and, while the connection with Hope College may not be as obvious, what is happening in France is directly related to us here. French citizens are actively engaged in ensuring that the government they voted into power continues to represent their own interests instead of just one group of people. While voter turnout for both the 2016 and 2018 elections were the highest recorded for decades, America still struggles to bolster its citizens to remain civically engaged. The French demonstrate, in a more extreme fashion than most, that politics matters. Civic engagement is not just for the old, white and wealthy. It’s everyone’s business and right to see themselves represented in government. So with caucuses and primaries just around the corner, ask yourself: how will you engage?