Street fighting monsieur

Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

A brisk ten-minute walk from where I currently live gets me to Place de la République. Before you get there these days you will see large numbers of gendarmes in riot gear, hear the sounds of a largish crowd in the distance, and, if you’re really unlucky, get to inhale a little tear gas.

The Nuit debout protests are France’s version of the Occupy movement in the US or the Indignados in Spain. The principal trigger for the current protests was a number of possible changes to labour laws proposed by deeply unpopular and notionally left-wing president François Hollande.

Hollande is not the first president to try and change what many regard as France’s outdated industrial relations system. Whatever the merits of the proposed changes, he has had no more success than his predecessors in pursuing them. All have caved in at the sight of street protests and mounting civil disobedience.

Unsurprisingly, the young are at the centre of these protests – as they should be, perhaps. If you’re not engagé when you’re young, you’re never likely to be. Joining protest movements of one sort or another is still something of a rite of passage for French youth. The irony in this case is that they might actually be the principal beneficiaries of any reforms to France’s labour laws.

France is an extreme example of the sort of core-periphery workforce syndrome that characterises a number of European countries. Spain is even worse. Insiders not only enjoy a range of privileges and lucrative benefits, but they are also very difficult to sack. Consequently, employers are reluctant to hire new full-time employees. When young people can actually get jobs, they are likely to be part-time, temporary, and very insecure.

What quite a few of the young protesters are demanding is that these privileges should apply to them too. They want insider status as well – and who can blame them? This is not exactly a revolution, though, more like an extension of the status quo. The question is first whether it’s actually feasible, and second whether it’s normatively defensible, especially for those that consider themselves to be on the left.

Globalisation is an overworked and under-specified idea, but it does capture something important about the difficulties policymakers confront in trying to pursue the “national interest”. It’s difficult to insulate national populations from external competitive forces, and some argue you shouldn’t even try. And yet it is clear from the rise of radical politics on both the left and the right that many would like their leaders to do precisely that.

Significantly, today’s protestors seem more concerned about the sorts of particularistic interests that are realised within the boundaries of individual nation-states, rather than the sort of class-based or cosmopolitan perspectives that have inspired revolutionary movements in the past. The disenchantment with the European Union, despite its demonstrated ability to transcend Europe’s ancient divisions, is one morbid manifestation of this process.

One of the few consolations of the ageing process is the ability – theoretically, at least – to remember earlier iterations of current events. The French protests of May 1968 may prove to have been the last gasp of radical politics of a sort that actually might have brought about truly revolutionary change. For a few weeks it really seemed as if the government might topple or that the country could descend civil war.

The stakes look a good deal smaller this time around. Despite all of the earnest discussions and speeches at Place de la République, it is not at all that obvious what the overall goal is, other than hanging out with other people with similar concerns. Therapeutic, no doubt, but not exactly transformative.

Whatever one may think about revolutionary Marxism, its advocates were not short of big ideas and plans – even if they looked increasingly implausible as the years passed.

Unfortunately for today’s would-be revolutionaries, the historical lessons of the Soviet Union and China under Mao don’t offer encouraging examples. Perhaps Chantal Mouffe is right to argue that what matters is that the young take part in, and are passionate about, ideas and politics, even if it’s not entirely obvious what an alternative domestic – much less international – order might look like.

It’s one thing to feel enraged or appalled about inequality, injustice or incompetence. It’s quite another thing to do something about it. Shaking up the conventional wisdom is always difficult – much more so when you are likely to benefit from the status quo.

The very smart students I’ve been teaching at Sciences Po, who are virtually guaranteed attractive and ultimately powerful positions in the establishment, were noticeably blasé about the turmoil on the streets. Perhaps Mick and Keith will pen another stirring anthem to inspire the young from whichever tax haven they currently reside in.