Sometimes I think I read the news every day because I’m waiting for a revolution somewhere. So when considerable numbers of workers in France took to the streets shutting down petrol stations, port refineries and streets in the last two weeks of October, I took to following BBC almost daily. President Nicolas Sarkozy was pushing a bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67, and the workers of France were having none of it. I would have liked to be in the French streets because I dig the solidarity high that comes with mass marches, but I live in America. And that means no national protests no matter how bad things become.
When the French national strike started on Tuesday, Oct. 12, unions estimated the turnout of the country-wide protests to be around 3.5 million, while police put the number at 1.2 million. For a population of a little over 64 million people, that would equate to 5.7 million Americans, according to the police numbers if such a turnout was possible for anything here. The strike continued as national transportation took the biggest hit. Trains were slowed down and off schedule, flights were grounded, and France’s twelve oil refineries were shut down by striking workers causing petrol panic and talk of tapping national oil reserves. As the strike maintained momentum, students joined the cause and heated things up. Students barricaded schools, black-clad youth clashed with cops, cars were set aflame, and tear gas canisters were returned to the police. And although the bill passed in the National Assembly with the President aiming to sign it in November, the spectacle caused by the opposition continues to be admirable in the most democratic sense. So I toast the people of France who take to the streets to be heard.
I have an affinity to voting with my feet in the street. My first protest sparked this interest when I marched in Grand Rapids on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. A handful of local demonstrations later, I was able to attend a mass mobilization last September to protest the G20 in Pittsburgh. Several thousand marchers took to the streets past several thousand stormtrooper dressed cops to speak out against the closed-door global power conference that the people of America know very little about. In the streets, I got chills as I chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.”
It is a part of democracy that Americans execute poorly, if at all, and never to a national extent. No, we do not have the aggressive history of turbulence in France or strongly supported unions, but we both share democracy. Like the U.S., France has a president presiding over the executive branch, a two-house legislative branch and a supreme court. So why can’t I exercise my legs and freedom to gather in the streets of the U.S. with five million others for a common goal?
That’s a loaded question with issues of propaganda, apathy, the domination of the two parties, American affluence, mass media, the failure of the left. Fear haunts the answer if there is one. But take the bank and car bailout, for example. Banks and car manufactures receive billion of dollars from the government, some of which shows up in the form of CEO bonuses and parties, while tax-paying Americans continue to be removed from their homes by foreclosure. That is a heroic simplification, but it is fair to say the two happened nearly simultaneously, with home foreclosures rising again according to a recent RealtyTrac report. There was no option of bailing people out and telling them to spend the money to keep the economy floating. No, failed banks and corporations are rescued by what political commentator, Noam Chomsky refers to as the “nanny state” and people look for places to stay as banks leave houses vacant. That was the last straw for my hope of a popular movement of Americans making changes against the coziness of corporations and the state. The “no you will not take my house while my government throws money at banks and corporations” mantra never manifested in the streets.
I will continue watching headlines and participating in local actions when they arise, but my hope for the shut down of infrastructure in America for a popular demand is small. Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without demand,” and American history attests to this fact. Maybe it’s time for a popular crisis in the streets of cities and towns because the crisis of state-sponsored capitalism, war, corporate power, eco-catastrophes, and consumerism are becoming increasingly apparent. The French do democracy better than you, America. How does that make you feel?