There have been many strikes and demonstrations in France since Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in May 2007, but none reached the two million mark like the one on 29 January. For a whole day, more than 200 demonstrations were organised throughout France. By lunchtime, one million people had marched, with the first-estimate figures impressive enough: 200,000 in the streets of Marseilles, 80,000 in Toulouse, 30,000 in Bordeaux, 20,000 in Orléans and Clermont-Ferrand. At 2pm, in the centre of Paris, huge crowds were gathering to walk towards République and end the protest in Opéra. It took six hours for the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to walk the four kilometres from Bastille to Opéra. A radicalised few, about 200 of them, wanted to push the protest up to the Elysée Palace but tear gas and heavy-handed riot police stopped them.
Some demonstrated for the first time in their
lives and many were there “en famille”
Sarkozy, deriding a long French tradition, declared last year that "nobody takes notice any more when the French take to the streets". Since his election, he has indeed been very careful to present demonstrators as privileged "dinosaurs" from the public service, cut off from reality and the concerns of "the other France", the one which, according to him, "wakes up earlier and works harder". On 29 January, the French president had to eat his words. Although organised by a united front of the country's eight main trade unions, many demonstrators from the private sector had answered the calls for a national strike and abandoned their desks to vent their anger alongside personnel from hospitals, universities, schools, public TV and radio networks, as well as lawyers, magistrates, judges, postal workers and employees from public energy utilities such as EDF.
As well as trade unions, all parties from the left had also called for people to show the government their discontent: from the Socialist and Communist parties, the Workers League and the newly baptised Trotskyite movement Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, gathered around the young and charismatic figure, Olivier Besancenot, a 34-year-old postman. The diversity of the people represented on the streets made it clear that the demonstration had mobilised every age and social group, from teenagers to elderly pensioners, from supermarket checkout workers to university professors. Some demonstrated for the first time in their lives and many were there en famille. My generation, born in the mid-Seventies, has taken part in myriad local demos and at least half a dozen grandes manifestations (above one million): in 1986 against university reforms; in 1990 against anti-Semitism after a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Carpentras in the south of France; in 1995 against Alain Juppé's reforms; in 2002 protesting at Jean-Marie Le Pen's presence at the second round of the presidential elections.
This time, sunny weather provided a radiant backdrop to the happenings and pranks of all descriptions which characterise grandes manifestations. Everybody in the crowd might be clear on one thing - the reason they are demonstrating - but the way they express it will be varied and inventive. A woman with a black wig, red lipstick and black sunglasses personified Rachida Dati, the former minister of justice, with a placard around her neck reading "Justice à vendre". A Sarkozy impersonator held three panting youths on a leash, representing "Health", "Education" and "Media". Quotes from Victor Hugo were painted in big black letters on ten-metre-long banners: "Quand on ouvre une école, on ferme une prison." ("When a school opens, a prison closes.") Stickers with the slogan "Rêve générale" (a pun on grève générale - general strike) were everywhere.
The success of this recent action is obvious to all, though it is more difficult to say how Sarkozy will react. At the time of going to press, he was expected to address the nation on television. He is expected to say that the current economic crisis affects the whole world and not only France, and that it would be inconceivable for his government to stop its reforms in their tracks. He will undoubtedly repeat his mantra: every government before him bowed to the streets, he won't. A meeting with the trade unions is planned for 9 February, though Sarkozy has been warned: if he does not provide them with a plan to boost consumer spending and announce a freeze on public service cuts, he should brace himself for yet another general strike and another wave of demonstrations. After 29 January, trade unions now feel they have a stronger hand, plus the support of 70 per cent of the population, a percentage even higher than during the 1995 three-week strikes which lead to Juppé's resignation.
One thing Sarkozy should be aware of is that the French are furious, and not only because they fear losing their jobs. Most people are extremely critical of his ill-conceived and rushed reforms, many passed by decree in parliament. They feel that traditional counter-forces that maintain the balance of power in a democracy have been systematically weakened. For instance, in parliament, a reform that is being fought by the opposition aims to restrict the amount of time spent debating bills, limiting the ability of the opposition to question the government and propose amendments - all in the name of efficiency.
In the education sector, tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. University staff are also up in arms against a reform which they claim creates unaccountability and undermines the academic ethos - that is, the idea of research free of economic constraints. Forty-five per cent of lectures given at universities were cancelled due to the professors' strikes.
There is a new mood of democracy in France. Sarkozy and his government are entering troubled waters.