A French Tradition of Resistance
Michael True, emeritus professor, Assumption College, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995).
Although I came here originally for a conference of anarcho-pacifists, former communists, teachers, and students, some directly involved in student/worker strikes all across the country, the setting was the star attraction — perhaps the most beautiful landscape in my experience.
Spring had arrived, with fields and forests green, clusters of forsythia along the highway, and the snow-covered Alps, seemingly, on every side. Frances Feeney, professor of American studies at the University of Grenoble met me at St. Exupery international airport in Lyon, for the hour drive to Chambéry, where the conference was held.
That afternoon, we got caught up in a student demonstration against the First Employment Contract (FEC) imposed by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Over a million people had demonstrated against FEC the week before, with even more in the streets ten days later. By the time I returned to the US, students and workers had won an important victory against officials seeking to undermine the rights of labor. Reading the conflicting reports in the US and French media about the strike and the issues involved was an education in social history.
The new FEC law, supposedly, encouraged management to hire young people by making it easier to lay them off without cause in their first two years on the job. But students and eventually workers rightly regarded it as an assault that directly threatened them and their futures.
Not surprisingly, American columnists got the story and the issues all wrong, dismissing the protest, some even saying of the French, "There they go again." Instead, journalists and commentators might have reminded Americans how European workers, many benefiting from six-week vacations, have won important victories through decades of agitation for decent wages and working conditions, with occasional help from socialist governments. Why wouldn't they take to the streets rather than bow before globalization and the holy "free market"?
"In France," an older worker said, "we often think of companies, especially multinationals, as a place of constant conflict between employees and management." For people "living beyond the political fault lines of left and right, companies and the market cannot be trusted," one journalist wrote. "Any measure that benefits them necessarily hurts employees." How un-American, to say such a thing! How radical! How accurate!
Finding a means of addressing almost 50% unemployment among working class youth in France is a real challenge, of course; but the present administration may have learned that ignoring workers, while imposing legislation inimical to their well being, is not the best way to deal with the issue.
Meanwhile, back at the three-day conference at the University of Savoi, which included support for striking students, participants compared pacifist traditions and cultures in the US and France, and considered their implications for the present in various regions of the globe.
Several veterans, for example, provided analyses and occasional memoirs of their 1950s experience during the French war on Algeria, while an elderly communist told of being hidden as a draft resister during the same period by Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, well-known leftist movie stars. Two young alumni of Eastern Mennonite University involved in military counseling near Heidelberg, Germany, described their time-consuming and complex efforts to aid American GIs opposed to the Iraq war seeking discharges on grounds of conscientious objection. I particularly valued meeting Robert S. Rivkin, a California lawyer and a major defender of anti-war GI's since the Vietnam era.
Peterson Nnajiofor, a Nigerian living in France, issued a moving challenge to anyone committed to nonviolence, asking what the movement offers to the people of his native land. Although a Christian Ibo pacifist movement continues there, it's overwhelmed by unrestrained violence among Muslim extremists in the north, and paramilitaries in the pay of Euro-American multinationals in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The latter retaliate against Nigerians struggling for human rights, social justice, and economic recovery, by annihilating whole villages.
Although I had read the work of French socialists and anarchists who wrote about the early 20th century, I had never been among people whose lives and careers were shaped by those social movements. So it was a revelation to be among men and women — activists, artists, and writers — informed by that tradition.
After the conference, I spent a wonderful day walking the streets of Grenoble, fifty miles south of Chambéry. Avenues at the center of the city bore the names of famous residents, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Jaurès, near Maison Stendhal, birthplace of the great 19th century novelist. A sign, "Quai Mounier," near a beautiful bridge on the Isere River, honored another native son, Emmanuel Mounier, pacifist, socialist, and founder of L'Esprit Magazine. Regarded as an influence on the Second Vatican Council, he was greatly admired and his writings were often cited by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement. Their esprit lives on in the streets of France.