What I Saw At The Austerity Protests In France

Rules for attending French protests:

1. Bring beer.

2. Skip school (if applicable).

3. Wear your hippie pants.

4. Don't forget the beer.

Photo by: Leonora Epstein

Protests are not novelty for the French, and if anything, can be considered as much a part of French culture as baguettes or berets. I've seen my fair share of strikes in Paris. I was here studying in 2006 when students decided to take on the First Employment Contract.

For weeks we had no classes, the streets in my neighborhood around the Sorbonne were littered with empty Kronenbourg beer cans, and I remember things got out of hand to the point that rioters stormed the local McDonald's (for what? Chicken Nugget artillery?) before the police broke it up with tear gas.

From my view, what's going on in Paris right now feels slightly similar. For almost a week now, the city has been on strike and protesting Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. So when I heard there was some exciting violence going on yesterday, I naturally hopped on the metro to check out the manifestation , or manif for short.

Unfortunately for me, I got there too late. Most of the vandalism and rioting had happened earlier in the day, and I had caught up with the procession near Montparnasse as it made its way to Les Invalides, a grassy esplanade near the Eiffel Tower.

Photo by: Leonora Epstein

What I saw seemed like standard French protesting—people banging bongo drums and chanting, mustachioed men with weird hats, teens drinking beer, young anarchist hippie types. Things were fairly quiet as they proceeded down Boulevard Montparnasse and people in sidewalk cafes watched the spectacle while enjoying their beer and wine.

Some protesters went for lighthearted accessories—I saw a group carrying cardboard coffins with signs that read "Promo sur les retraits! Derniers jours!" Promotion on retirement. Last days. Embarrassing 40-something mom-types "jammed" (if you know what I mean) to awful French pop on the back of a truck as it slowly drove down the boulevard.

When we reached Invalides, things were a bit more tense. As I tried to approach a group of baggy-pantsed teens, a guy with a microphone ran in front of me shouting something to the effect of, "Masacrer Sarkozy!" to which the teens cried, "Ouaiiiisssss!" (This was enough to scare me off.) Further down the esplanade, a flare burned at the edge of the sidewalk for no apparent reason. People sat mere feet away from it, non-chalantly. In between the clusters of friends gathered on the grass and pamphleteers, there seemed to be more photographers than protesters.

Why were there so many young people at what was supposed to be a demonstration for, well, old people?

There was the obvious: to skip school, hang out with friends, and protest, because that's what French people do. Then there were those who were simply anti-Sarkozy, and were angry that their votes never counted. I still had to wonder—why take such a seemingly passionate interest in retirement?

I decided to approached a woman in her late twenties, and asked her, "Why are you protesting?" Although, to be fair, I first awkwardly asked in French if she spoke English. To ask her directly in my American-accented French—"Why are you protesting?"—felt ignorant to me. I knew "why" per se, but I wanted her to talk to me in a more general, educational way. No, she didn't speak English, so I continued in French, despite the fact that she already seemed to have no patience with me (this was to be expected).

Photo by: Leonora Epstein

"I understand that the protest is against raising the retirement age, but can you tell me why there are so many young people here?"

"Because we have to fight. Now it's 62, but tomorrow it will be 64, 66, 70! Who knows!"

"So you already think like this? You think this far ahead into the future from such a young age?"

Oops. I guess that was the wrong thing to say because what came next felt like an attack. "And you, YOU! So you're for this retirement age?"

"Uh...je ne sais pas...I don't have an opinion." Best to be neutral, right?

"You Americans. You want to work until you're dead?" Ouch.

I thanked her and walked away. It seemed difficult to think about my life in 40 years from now. Was 62 so old to retire? At 62 would I be physically unable to work?

I thought about my father, a classical pianist and music professor who got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do last year and at 64 has no plans to stop working anytime soon. And what about aspirations? What about working to achieve a career you're proud of, one that you want to fulfill your life as long as possible?

What do the French think happens after the age of 60? That all of a sudden you stop working and your identity is no longer tied to what you do? There it was. That actually made sense to me.

I remember arriving in Paris a little over a year ago and being utterly confused at parties when people didn't ask me about my job second after "What's your name?" It took a while to re-learn how to socialize and converse without relying on your career as a way to brand yourself in public.

I considered this as I wandered aimlessly through the crowd for another half hour, feeling like the only person there without a group.

In the end, I decided to have a beer, because that seemed like the logical thing to do. I retreated to the sidelines to observe and sip my Kronenbourg (not caring for the first time ever that it normally feels taboo for a woman to drink alone in public here). As I watched the mixed crowd of sign-carrying students, middle-aged pamphleteers, and dreadlocked kids, I realized how out of place I felt and wondered if I looked that way, too. Maybe wearing jeggings and ballet flats to a protest wasn't the best idea, after all.

Leonora Esptein is a freelance writer living in Paris. Her work can be found on her website, LeonoraEpstein.com

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