Student Protests Could Use a Little Égalité

Because no one protests like the French.

By Yasser Ali Nasser, Oxford University


The United States is no stranger to student activism—our campuses have historically fought for or against a variety of issues: civil rights, involvement in Vietnam, the War on Drugs, the Iraq War, gay marriage etc.

But it seems recently that college movements have taken to variegation instead of solidarity—Fight for Fifteen and Black Lives Matter being two recent examples. Students on different campuses have disagreed on certain ideological aspects of the same movements, while others have approached their activist methodology with different perspectives.

American Student Movements Should Be Taking Notes on the French Labor Protests

For example, last year a group of activists disrupted a Bernie Sanders rally (much to the chagrin of his followers), and the leadership of Black Lives Matter was split between support and condemnation.

At the same time, there has been a large and successful student movement in another country: France. In response to the labor reforms that the French government is looking to promote to address the country’s chronic youth unemployment, French students across the country have joined with labor rights groups and unions to combat what they see as an unfair law.

And in many ways it is an unfair law. While our newspapers and TV channels have been focusing on the supposedly violent or militant aspects of the movement (as is often the case even in regards to our domestic activists), the majority of student activists in France simply believe that instead of pushing the right sort of solution to the problem of unemployment, the government is aiding and abetting certain corporate practices.

Let’s forget, for a moment, about the politics of the matter. What is truly impressive about the French movement—whether you agree or disagree with their aims—is how unified and impactful it has been.

In the United States, the public can often be unsympathetic about certain student activist issues, especially those related to privilege, while public support for the student movement in France is incredible—over 60 percent of the country agrees with the demonstrations. This majority support comes despite union shut-downs of nuclear power plants and commuter trains being used to bring the government to the negotiating table.

Moreover, the movement is also targeting social issues: the gender pay-gap, solidarity with refugees and xenophobia.

The civil rights spillover is pretty similar to some of the comprehensive movements we see at home—Black Lives Matter focuses on both the economic and societal aspects of racism. But could you imagine the reaction if Black Lives Matter were involved in a “disruptive” act, such as the crippling of public transit? It seems inconceivable that there would be nearly as much political support for that sort of behavior. In America, antagonistic action as a form protest would polarize support, splitting the country into condemnatory and supportive camps, and the movement’s popular support would evaporate.

The question is: Why is the student movement in France so much more successful than comparable campaigns in the States?

I’m sure many would agree that most of the issues students here fight for—living wage, affordable healthcare, etc.—are just as important as the labor rights that the French are advocating for. But there seems to be a big cultural difference that may warrant an examination.

RECOMMENDED
Life off the Road: Vacation Advice from a Self-Described Hermit

There is, for example, a rather storied history of the French promoting disruptive activism in the name of the greater good. Compromise of ideals is not nearly as valued in French political culture as it is in America—we seem to like the idea of bipartisanship, whereas it seems the French are much more willing to fight for humanist ideals, regardless of the repercussions.

The difference dates back to the beginning of our two nations. The French Revolution essentially turned society upside-down in the name of pursuing inalienable rights, whereas the American Revolution included the same rhetoric, but was less firebrand in practice. Slavery, for example: The French outlawed it in 1794, but it took the United States nearly a century and a civil war to settle that issue.

Historical differences, then, partially explain the rift between political rhetoric and implementation. But what about the organizational differences?

Again, the differences are mostly cultural. France, and many Western European countries recognize the idea that their societies do not revolve around the individual, i.e. they do not buy into the American “exceptionalist” mindset. Instead, many Continental thinkers believe it is the collective effort of a body politic that makes a difference.

American Student Movements Should Be Taking Notes on the French Labor Protests

If the collective can convince the state to overrule a law, then the collective will wins. In the United States, though, we very much believe in the exceptional—an individual who is more effective than a clunky, bureaucratic group.

It boils down to one core issue. The United States believes, generally, that values like liberty and freedom can stand on their own, and, through the facilitation of law, that they should guide the people. In France though, people believe human rights must be institutionalized, and that when they are abused or elided, that is is the duty of the nation to make them real, regardless of discomfort or umbrage to individuals.

So whereas American student culture and movements have often focused on an individuals with “leadership qualities,” French movements have focused on the concept of collective struggle.

Perhaps then, in the light of the many difficulties our nation faces, it is incumbent on all of us—especially those of us on college campuses—to think about our place in society not in terms of ourselves and our immediate needs, but rather the needs of society. The American mentality of exceptionalism works sometimes, but it can stymy larger structural change that can benefit everyone.