The National Sport of Protesting*

*Must Be Played by the Rules

While speaking about the ins and outs of French culture in a humming lecture hall, my jovial young professor quipped to our class about how, “in France, protesting is a national sport.” Everyone laughed at the embellishment, including myself. Despite my understanding that the culture and politics of a nation are inherently intertwined, I didn’t quite realize just how true this sentiment would prove to be in the coming weeks.

The left bank of the Saône River in Lyon

I had arrived at my host institution, Université Jean Moulin in Lyon, France in the hottest time of year—August. As the weeks rolled on and the streets cooled down, I found myself drawn to the cobblestoned city center more often, intrigued by the intricate architecture, impeccable fashion, and especially the open air markets brimming with fresh produce, spices, flowers, bread, art, and more. I would often download a podcast or two and head into the centre ville to wander around and soak up my new home; many of these strolls were enchantingly uneventful, but I distinctly recall the first time I was downtown on a Saturday. I had just picked up a load of fresh fruit and was rounding the corner near a town square when I was met with a wall of angry voices. My immediate reaction was that I had come face to face with a street fight, but I quickly realized that the river of people in front of me were not fighting not against but with each other. I stood petrified until the last of the hundreds (if not thousands) of chanting citizens passed me by. Though my shock never truly went away, I actually ended up running into many more protests throughout my year in Lyon; no matter what French city we were in, Saturdays proved to be the day to protest. Recalling what my professor had said at the beginning of the year, my interest in the importance of dissent in French culture was piqued. 

The Saturday morning market in my neighborhood (Montchat)

In the United States, protesting is often regarded as a partisan activity that makes headlines for a few days or even weeks, but rarely results in tangible action, especially new policy. In France, however, protests can last for weeks or even months, and organizers behind the cause typically galvanize members of the public rather than alienating them. Moreover, the French parliament is filled with a dozen major political parties (the most popular of the 453 registered parties in the country), which gives more incentive for party leaders to listen to their constituents in order to gain political power. This merging of protesters, public, and parliament often results in widespread government concessions; one example we learned about was when fishermen blockaded the Port of Calais after the E.U. placed new limits on their industry, leading to a $66 million government payout. 

Not even rain could stop this protest in the small town of Vienne, France

Even though demonstrating in the streets were an incredibly common (and even revered) French pastime, I noticed a distinct lack of dissent within the French classroom. I struggled with the antiquated model of teaching used by Jean Moulin, wherein professors were seen as the ultimate authority on a subject, and class consisted of hundreds of students who robotically transcribed every word of every lecture. Questions were discouraged, and discussion was almost unheard of. As someone whose leadership and learning styles thrive in a collaborative environment, I struggled to adapt my proficiencies to this new environment. I found myself engaging in many internal disputes to keep my inquisitive side satisfied, but it was quite difficult to remain reticent during some of my more interesting courses, especially when I disagreed with the lecturer.

One of the many soliloquies (classes) I attended

Traveling elsewhere showcased the variety of manners in which a constituency can rebel against its leadership. For instance, a weekend trip to Djerba, Tunisia, offered up no evidence of the popular hatred of the current president, which has made headlines since January of this year. Instead, the streets were eerily quiet, to a point that perturbed my companions and I. We asked our AirBnb host why this was the case, and he responded by saying that the majority of his fellow Djerbians “prefer to keep their political opinions inside, both inside their persons and their homes. Only those in the capital are arrogant enough to yell openly.” 

My time in Lyon reaffirmed the close relationship a country’s political fabric has with its culture, but also made me realize how nuanced this consanguinity can be. In Tunisia, vibrant ‘nationwide’ protests may in fact be contained within just one city, though sentiments of dissent may be shared by citizens across the land. And in France, protesting may be a national sport, but one must play by the rules, which include keeping resistance to the street (and not within, say, a classroom). 

Picnicking in the foreground of the Vienne protest