French President Emmanuel Macron recently backed down from his proposal to streamline France’s pension system, a proposal that would have awarded pensions at a later age based on the number of points accrued over one’s lifetime. This prompted protests that shut down public transport services for over six weeks and gained nearly 70 percent public support. The demonstrations are the latest installment in a series of labor protests that have rocked France for two years.
The United States was founded with protest. Every major social change, from ending the Vietnam War to working toward racial equity after the Civil Rights Movement, has been a product of protest, and it is often said that this tendency to question and rebel is central to the American ethos. Recently, however, “slacktivism” — or the proclamation of support for a protest’s cause without active participation in the protest itself — has saturated sociopolitical behavior in the U.S. This passive solidarity signals virtue but limits the effectiveness of practical change. Americans should focus on renewing our dedication to civic engagement, whether that be voting in local elections, calling representatives, physically marching or engaging in other forms of political participation. If our founders had only signalled a disapproval of British tyranny among their friends to gain popularity, instead of organizing public demonstrations, our treasure of American democracy might have never been possible.
In this regard, the U.S. has something to learn from France. Before the pension protests, working class drivers sparked the “Yellow Vest” movement with a fuel tax protest, a movement named after the high-visibility jackets that French motorists must carry in their vehicles. The outcome of this protest included foremost a six-month suspension of the diesel and petrol tax, as well as a cancellation of taxes on both overtime and end-of-year bonuses, and a 100 euro increase in social minima for employees. The movement also encouraged protests in Iraq and Jordan. Due to help from the SNCF (Frane’s state-owned railway company) and the CGT union, the pension protest’s victory in rolling back Macron’s proposed reform serves as a reminder to the American public of how remarkably effective public protest can be.
Throughout France, protests shut down cities, derail infrastructural systems and force significant concessions from Macron. In comparison, protests in 2020 America are largely symbolic in nature, occupying massive space in the political imagination but little space in legislative change. For instance, some of America’s most prominent protest movements of the past five years have been #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the annual Women’s March. While these are all worthy causes, it is difficult for these influential social movements to demand concrete legislative changes since their objectives target behavioral and cultural structures in Western culture. And while protest turnout has increased since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, still only one in five Americans have gone to a protest since he was inaugurated.
Perhaps the most narrowly tailored American protest movement in recent memory was the March for Our Lives, which has earned national recognition for stricter gun legislation but has led to little institutional change. Many in the U.S. may feel disillusioned with the lack of government response to civic action, but we can learn from France’s civic engagement that protests are effective when they are specifically action-oriented and routinely disruptive. The most effective protests, as we have learned from France, are those that target specific legislation with widespread and highly visible public support. We can only achieve this in the U.S. through continued practice.
Many protests in the U.S., and more locally in Ann Arbor — like the No War in Iran protest and the Climate Strike — enjoy social media support, but lack attendance relative to the levels of French activism. Civil engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised continuously or it may wither. The more you engage — and not just repost and like in online message boards — the more you motivate change. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Democracy is not a static thing. It is an everlasting march.”
While French protests rage on with impressive physicality and scale, modern American efforts fail to match a similar spirit. Resist the cozy nook that “slacktivism” provides. Avoid free riding for a commonly-shared public good achieved only by the small minority who actually make an in-person appearance. Only by inspiring Americans to learn from our French counterparts, can we rumble the streets with voices and fill the air with picket signs. American protests can become more compelling, acknowledged and successful. But it starts with you.