One similarity between Paris and my beloved Portland that has struck me is the popularity of protests and marches. I’ve encountered quite a few in the past three months, and every single time, I’ve been surprised at my American peers’ surprise. Friends from Texas, New Jersey, Maryland, etc., have all dropped their jaws as a demonstration passes on the wide avenues of Paris, while I’ve simply smiled and felt a slight pang of homesickness. Paris and Portland—two lovely cities with a tradition of strong minds and loud voices.
My most recent encounter was walking to the metro station at Place de la République a few weeks back, when an impressively large and diverse march blocked almost the entire place for “les droites des sans-papiers”, or the rights of immigrants without legal papers. What a familiar sight it was. People waving banners and flags, shouting chants (“We work here, we live here, we stay here!”), passing out leaflets, and generally singing, smiling, and enjoying the clear blue sky of the day. I was pleased to see the Parisian police standing on the sidelines doing absolutely nothing except chatting amongst themselves, and even engaging some of the protesters in genial conversation concerning the issues at hand—the way it should be. No violence, no dramatic uproar, just people assuring that their voices are heard.
Of course, this is not always the case. Parisians, especially students, have a strong history of rebellion against their government, including violent revolt. From the infamous mai ’68 protests to the more recent demonstrations in March 2006 wherein cars were set afire and dozens of people were injured, violence has been a prominent part of the dialogue between the people and the state. Not to mention the political history of violence as a means for overthrowing and overturning the government (guillotines, anyone?).
Luckily, I’ve not witnessed anything of the sort. That’s not to say, however, that outward protest doesn’t affect my life as a simple American-Parisian student on a day-to-day basis. The public transit system strikes on a regular basis, impeding both students and professors from reaching school. Last year, thousands of high school and university professors went on strike, completely up-ending thousands of students’ education and post-graduate plans.
But for all of the frustration I feel when I find out that the metros will be down for the day, it is entirely redeeming to know that people are doing something to make their government listen, and it’s even more rewarding to know that it actually pays off in many cases. Looking back at the nation-wide professor strike that actually started in 2007 and came to a head last year against the Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities law (more commonly known as the Law Pécresse), the people were heard. The law claimed to increase university independence by drastically cutting government funding, undermining one of the strongest principles of the socialist French school system that all French students can attend a public university free of cost. In the end, the government budget for universities was actually increased, and the students and professors returned to their posts, all the while keeping a diligent eye on their public representatives.
Spending a lot of my childhood in Portland, protests and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, have always been a part of my life, and I have fond memories of such events. Portland remains one of the strongest protest cities in America (remember, W. didn’t dub us “Little Beirut” for nothing), but as a nation, I’ve noticed a bit of a decline in our willingness to speak up since the November election. We all have things that we want our government to be doing, but they are literally immobilized without any real public pushing and shoving.
These philosophies, of course, reach farther still into our lives: yep, Reed student body elections are starting up. So remember your responsibility, and do as the French do: make your voice heard. In a community as small and tight-knit as Reed, every single opinion has the opportunity to make a difference and count for something, and while guillotines and car fires are hopefully not in our future, we need to seize our chance to exercise our proverbial, and literal, vocal cords.