France has a tradition of civic protests

Revolution gripped France more than 200 years ago, when ordinary citizens overthrew the monarchy to instate a society in which a person’s status was determined by work ethic instead of birth. Since then, this philosophy of protesting inequality and unfairness has become an integral part of French society.  Whether in the form of a strike (“grève”) or a protest (“manifestation”), political action is encouraged here in a way that we don’t experience often in the United States.

The last strike that really affected Americans was the Writer’s Guild of America strike in late 2007 and early 2008. Remember, when we all had to watch reruns for a few months? In fact, most major workplaces in the United States place bans on striking; employees could lose their jobs if they attempt to strike.  In France, however, the constitution has guaranteed any worker with a salary the right to strike since 1946.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has made an effort to place certain restrictions and minimum work requirements for strikers, but these have mostly been ignored. The industry that is notorious for going on strike often in France is transportation. Since I arrived in Lyon, there have been two major transportation strikes: one that lasted nearly a month, and another that was much shorter, but which occurred during the “Fête des Lumières,” Lyon’s busiest time for tourism.

In general, the strikes are inconvenient, but not totally crippling to the city. Public transportation may stop completely for a day or two, but the buses, metro and tramway usually start working again quickly, even if their service is slightly limited.

Schools, especially universities, in France are also often affected by strikes. This time last year, at least two major universities in Lyon were on strike, a movement led by both professors and students protesting new government reforms of the university system. Students blocked the university so that classes could not be held and tagged buildings with revolutionary graffiti.

When I arrived in the fall, a lot of the graffiti was still there. Some hallways were spray painted with anarchy signs, “The insurrection is coming!” was scrawled in permanent marker on a bathroom stall door, and “death at the capitol” was painted in big bold letters outside the cafeteria.

Last week, similar messages were spray painted again all over campus. The graffiti was not the result of a strike, but, according to one of my professors, in response to the expulsion of a student. It is clear that when a group of students sees injustice in the system, they make their grievances known.

When I saw the new graffiti, I thought to myself that this is something that I would never see at any of the American colleges I knew.  When students at Saint Louis University are unhappy with the University, they work within the system to try to make it better.  But in France, strikes and protests are often viewed as the most effective way to make change happen quickly.

Sara Brouillette is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying in Lyon, France.