France’s National Sport: Protesting

Paris manif. Image courtesy of Maria-Lan Nguyen

France is a very athletic nation, but is there a French national sport? There are certainly plenty of contenders.

Maybe it’s cycling. France has won more Olympic medals in cycling than any other country and is home to the world’s greatest cycling race, the Tour de France. Or it could be soccer. Roaring soccer fans fill stadiums across the country and the national team, Les Bleus, is revered by one and all.

Alfred Levitt, approx 1945
Alfred Levitt, approx 1945

And don’t forget pétanque! You drink pastis while you play — does it get more French than that?

But none of these worthy contenders can compare to the real French national sport, one enjoyed by young and old, women and men, citoyens of all races and religions. This great national pastime is… protests. French street demonstrations have been going on for centuries and you would be hard-pressed to find a français or française who hasn’t participated in at least one. It’s practically a rite of passage.

Delacroix public domain

Yes, the French love their manifestations; they are part of the very fabric of French life. Why? Because French people believe that protesting in the streets is the only way to force radical change. And they might have a point. Let’s look a take a look at French history…

The Storming of the Bastille, 1789. This is mother of all manifestations, the one that launched the French Revolution and changed history. It (eventually) brought democracy, human rights, and the end of feudalism — what’s not to love? Well, unless you got a close shave from Monsieur Guillotine’s “National Razor.”

Les Trois Glorieuses, 1830. Demonstrations during these “Three Glorious Days” brought down the monarchy. Wait, didn’t the French Revolution already do that? Zut alors, much like cockroaches, those kings are hard to get rid of.

The Paris Commune, 1871. Barricades, bayonets, the fight for women’s rights — this one had it all! You can practically hear Jean Valjean and the gang singing.

Image courtesy of Universal Studios
Image courtesy of Universal Studios

The Popular Front, 1936. Strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country for weeks but gave France the right to unionize, paid vacations, and the 40-hour workweek.

May 1968. Massive student protests in Paris nearly brought down the government of Charles de Gaulle. And they had a groovy, 1960s hippie vibe. Kind of like when Jimi Hendrix rocked Woodstock, but without all the mud.

So how did the French manage to master the manif? A good street demonstration is like a big party where you get to march through the streets, wave some banners, and chat with your neighbors.

Protestors at the "Manif pour tous" 2013 manifAnd wear funny clothes. The French love to play dress up.

They dress up for manifs all the time. Somebody passes the word around, and everyone shows up at the manif all color-coordinated. Overalls? Sure. Clowns? Heck yes. Masks? Always! Maybe it’s just to get their picture in the paper but it certainly looks good.

Stay tuned for news from France, because we’ll probably see some world-class demonstrations very soon. President Macron is scheduled to introduce new labor laws next month and the unions are organizing huge protests to oppose them. So you’ll get to see thousands of French people marching through the streets chanting slogans, wearing funny outfits, and catching up on each other’s summer vacation.

Vive la revolution !

Image courtesy of Sciences Po
Image courtesy of Sciences Po