Protests in france: look at us!

With strong but sometimes problematic gestures: the fight against Macron’s pension reform reaches a new dimension.

With all fierceness, the firefighters demand better working conditions and more pay Photo: Charles Platiau/reuters

Suddenly they are on fire. Two firefighters in protective suits, surrounded by their colleagues. Television cameras and cell phones are pointed at them – and already, on January 28, the gruesome images are spreading on social networks and running on a continuous loop on news channels.

These days in France, a lot is riding on the power of images, on forceful gestures, because the classic, union-organized demonstrations against the Macron government’s pension reform are losing their following. Many are frustrated by a government that seems to be turning a deaf ear to their arguments.

But it’s not just the pension issue that is causing trouble: Emmanuel Macron’s reformist zeal has antagonized so many sections of the population and professions that it’s hard to keep track of the ongoing protests. In addition to firefighters, there are also police officers, teachers, doctors and lawyers, not to mention the hard core of the yellow vest movement.

They are talking about the serious shortage of nursing staff in hospitals, the changes planned for 2021 to the German baccalaureate, and the restructuring of the civil service. In this jungle of interests and demands, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make one’s own concerns heard.

Flying lawyer robes

But some people are doing just that. There are the Attac activists in the look of the American woman character "Rosie" from the 1940s, with strained biceps and the slogan "We can do it!" Where the women appear in blue workers’ overalls, yellow rubber gloves and red headscarves, performing their dance routine and a re-purposed hit song, they earn applause: "Because of Macron, pensions will go down, whether for Fatou or Marion, because of Macron, we will be the losers!"

What else falls under free expression and when does symbolic violence turn into manifest violence?

The ballerinas of the Paris Opera have also danced. At Christmas, they interpreted scenes from Swan Lake on the steps of the Palais Garnier. The choir of public radio also relied on the forcefulness of its art when it sang Giuseppe Verdi’s "Prisoners’ Chorus" in the middle of the New Year’s address by the director of Radio France, Sybile Veil.

And because the New Year’s wishes are a popular and important ritual in the country, they also went differently than planned for other superiors. Just as Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet had taken the floor, the black robes of the bystanders flew toward her as they left the room.

The same happened to the management of the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière, where at the end of the well-intentioned wishes only a mountain of white coats remained in front of the lectern. Teachers piled up old textbooks in front of school offices. Minister of Culture Franck Riester finally canceled his New Year’s speech for fear of imitators.

Flood of gestures

"We are seeing words being replaced by gestures," analyzes political scientist and rhetoric expert Clement Viktorovitch, known for his trenchant analyses of language on the television program "Clique. He speaks of a new "grammar of gestures" with which the protesters supplement classic forms of protest. Today, a few individuals can stir up more people and attract more media attention with effective actions than a mass of people with banners and whistles.

Political history is full of gestures, mostly on the part of the rulers, who use them – according to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – to express "symbolic violence" hidden in their habitus, language and much more.

In France, the rulers are currently experiencing a flood of gestures on the part of the population. When lawyers’ robes or doctors’ coats are discarded, after all symbols of a profession with prestige and social recognition, it is about more than the future financing of pensions: It is about the existing social order. That gestures can be followed by action was demonstrated this week by more than 300 chief and senior physicians who collectively resigned from their management positions. Hundreds more are threatening to follow suit.

The protests also often draw on the long history, the culture of protest against the existing order. On Jan. 23, for example, opponents of reform marched through Paris with torches, some carrying lances on which they had spiked fashioned Macron heads, accompanied by chants of "We decapitated Louis XVI, Macron, we’re starting again!"

Representative democracy in danger

What else falls under free expression and when does symbolic violence turn into manifest violence? Meanwhile, politicians in France have to worry about remaining unharmed during public appearances. Macron, for example, had to be escorted out of a theater by security forces, and other ministers also got into dicey situations.

Is representative democracy in danger if aggression continues to increase, as we are also seeing in Germany? Yes. France is at an important moment for its political culture. The demonstrators risk losing sympathy within the population with some gestures. They snub, they irritate when they make questionable historical connections. They also run the risk that instead of substantive demands, only the gesture itself will be disseminated in a media-friendly manner.

As long as the political style of the Macron government does not change, it is to be feared that the protests will become even more violent. But it would also be regrettable if they were to die down completely – and Macron’s reform remained without a headwind.

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