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La Manif

I followed Jaqueline, my guide and host, through the gathering crowd, past the Chateau de l’Eau, toward the descending stone stairways, where the people were thicker and also were climbing onto the statues of lions to drape their banners, smiling with lazy good cheer. The march had yet to begin.

I had come to the protest as sort of an honorary member of the southern French teacher’s union SUD — which stands for Solidaire, Unitaire, Democratique — to witness what a general strike looked like in France. I could not have gone to work at the school in Lunel in any case, as the workers of SNCF, the national railway, had decided to back the strike; no trains were running between Montpellier and Lunel.

When I first heard of the strike, the notion of it intrigued me: that a good portion of the nation’s population would take to the streets to protest the policies of its government — policies that are not nearly so dire as those being enacted in the states — and effectively shut down the national infrastructure for a day seemed so quaintly French, so distinctly un-American. The procession was something that I wished to see with my own eyes. While viewing it, I might do several things: I could compare the number of youths in the crowd here to that in the states; I could walk with a mass of people down the main thoroughfare of Montpellier, and do my part to stop the passage of cars; I could listen to much high volume French broadcast shrilly through the loudspeakers mounted on the back of flatbed truck; I could be overwhelmed by the acronyms of so many leftist parties that I would be able to remember only one, CGI; I could watch, in the closing moments of the march, some young communists throwing eggs at members of a student union, settling or exacerbating a conflict whose beginnings I would never fully discover.

It seemed to me, walking with the crowd, that there were far more older protesters than younger. Perhaps the French consider an interest in politics an interest of the middle aged; perhaps if I had marched with a group of people my age, as I would have done if the march were in the states, rather than a group of professionals, I would have had the impression that more young people here were politically active.

Whatever the relative age of political activists, I found it very difficult to read the language of political signification that they employed. Standing in the milling crowd as we thronged along our route, I looked to the left and to the right and saw people displaying symbols just foreign enough to sap them of significance. The grungy, unshaven look of the young radicals passing out leaflets advocating the abolition of private property remains nearly the same everywhere, but how was I to take these fully-bearded and gray-haired old men who embodied the look of the peasant farmer, an ideal non-existent in American political stereotypes? The militant paison who dismantles a McDonald’s construction site or who reaps a field of GMO crops and then immediately destroys the harvest does not translate so well. The social history is not there to give him resonance.

The march wound its course before finally winding down, and the protesters who still remained in the plaza settled into their seats in the terraces of cafes to order their drinks. Myself, I sat with them and ordered a white beer with lemon and watched the crowd quickly scatter, twenty thousand people or more returning to their lives after a routine political statement.

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