“Oh no, I wouldn’t say I’m much of an activist,” I told an acquaintance in 2010. We’d just walked into one of Britain’s many occupied campuses, and were comparing experiences. Most of the students there had never really protested before; attempting to oppose the trebling of tuition fees was the first time they had taken to the streets.
“Well obviously I blockaded my high school twice – the first time lasted nearly a month – and I’ve been on about a dozen marches, but that’s it.” He looked at me and laughed. Not much of an activist, right?
Truth is, that was just a normal French experience. You’d go to school, politicians would do or say something stupid up in Paris, university students would barricade their campuses, then teenagers would follow. We often didn’t really know what we were meant to be angry about – mostly, it was just nice to feel included.
For some reason, this is an aspect of French life that British people cannot get over. In my nearly 14 years here, I’ve had countless conversations with friends and strangers who were in awe of all that protesting. Oh the glamour of it, the fun! Were you smoking as you chanted? Were you all terribly chic, wonderfully well-dressed as you threw your Molotov cocktails? And so on.
What I mostly remember from those years is that a schoolmate of mine lost an eye, because the police were shooting rubber bullets at children. I wish I could say that things have got better since then, but they haven’t. French police still, to this day, frequently assault and kill people.
It’s a debate that engulfed the country a few years ago – police brutality – but few people abroad seemed to care. What they like is imagining us stuck in an eternal May ’68, snogging, dolled-up and furious. It’s an image of France built entirely for the purpose of the rest of the world. As a result, whatever doesn’t fit into this neat idea of what the country ought to be like often gets swept under the carpet. La République may have its charms when observed from abroad, but who really gets to belong there?
A few years ago, a study found that 8,000 Jewish citizens had left France for Israel in 2015, citing concerns of rising antisemitism in the country. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that Muslim workers were moving to Britain, Canada, Dubai and the US in order to escape constant discrimination. Where are the protests for them? Why has no prominent national movement tried to address those?
It is possible to look at people marching against pension reforms and imagining a country built on solidarity and quality of life, but who do they keep voting for again? Oh yes, that’s right – a far right leader, who made it to the second round of the presidential elections two cycles in a row.
That’s my first ever political memory, by the way. Watching the results come in as a child, and looking at the faces of my dad and stepmum as they went white and blank. Holocaust-denying Jean-Marie Le Pen was the second most popular politician in the country just over 20 years ago, and now it looks like his daughter will be our next president.
Macron can’t stand again, it isn’t clear who will run instead of him, both the traditional left and right are yet to recover from past electoral pastings, and the far left is as divided as the far left can be. Le Pen’s still there though, waiting. If she wins, my mum will probably move back to Morocco; yet another Muslim driven out of France. But it’s fun when rioters set things on fire, right?
Of course it is unfair to expect foreigners to know all that much about the countries around them. I couldn’t tell you a hell of a lot about, say, what is currently happening in Belgium. At least I don’t pretend, though; not really caring is fine, only pretending to care when things fit your pre-existing opinions is just grating.
This may all sound bitter and mean-spirited, and hell, maybe it is, maybe I’m not one to talk. I couldn’t even wait to turn 18 to leave France and move to Britain – I crossed the Channel at 17 and three quarters. I’m biased. I just think that, overall, things are better here, though I suppose we can all agree that Christ, it’s a low bar.