The strikes forecast at the beginning of October turned out to be rather more serious than anticipated. Lyon was, unexpectedly, one of the worst affected places in France along with Nanterre, renowned for the May 68 riots. The week leading up to the Vacances de Toussaint was total chaos, verging on anarchy, throughout France. In Lyon, there were daily stand-offs between the police and youths claiming to be demonstrators, and dodging charging riot police became routine. The surreal scenes of torched cars, broken windows, burning bins; the youtube clips of shops being looted; tear gas being dropped on the centre of town on several occasions to disperse the crowds: all this was unprecedented in Lyon. Around the country, the oil refineries were blockaded, which lead to a nationwide rationing of petrol. Universities shut, a college was burnt to the ground and public transport ran at 45%. The French carried on as usual, some agreeing with the demonstration but all shocked by the escalation of violence.
Although at the time I was quite happy to explain to the teachers at my schools that these events were completely alien for a Brit to see, I now feel I spoke too soon following the tuition fees march in London this week. The scenes shown on the Internet have a definite stroke of déjà vu. Can we really write off the escalation of this French debacle as a result of a culture determined to strike and live by the state, or is it, more likely, a result of the times? The French as a nation are far more inclined to take to the streets to shout about their rights.
The British are far more reserved by reputation – certainly we complain, but it is rare to hear of an issue where people feel strongly enough to come out in protest and show their anger in such droves.
On both sides of the channel, these events were taken advantage of by people with no interest in the political statement, and were overshadowed by the vandalism carried out by a minority. In my opinion, the coverage provided by the press encouraged this focus on the violence. The evening news in France showed scene after scene of violence from around the country on every channel, with views of the demonstrations tagged on at the end as an afterthought. The same can be said for the main British news stations and papers. Until the week of violence there was perhaps one article on the BBC website mentioning that the French were striking again…big deal. With the rioting emerged pictures of tear gas at Bellecour, of looting in the centre, but nothing of the peaceful protests that had been going on for months. The same can be said for the London march, and there was one picture that I found particularly striking. A hooded boy, face covered, is kicking in the window of Millbank, the Conservative HQ; in a perfect semi-circle around him are hundreds of journalists and photographers all craning to get closest. Nobody is trying to stop him, everyone is just after the best shot. It is a totally surreal photo which, for me, sums up all that is wrong with the press today. The quest to capture the most shocking, destructive image without any regard for the consequences is a truly bizarre phenomenon.
Who knows whether Cameron and Clegg will follow Sarkozy’s example and stand their ground; whether this is the beginning of a period where the British will feel more inclined to take to the streets to defend their rights. As for France, after the law was passed there was little more heard from the protesters. There have been a few half hearted marches through town but it seems that change has been accepted and life must go on. Until the next reform that is.