In order to engage with a society it’s essential to see their country as they see it. Social unrest can be helpful in this regard.

The political TEA Parties are offering foreign students in the United States at the moment an opportunity to gain rare insights into American culture and history – a history that began over taxes and featured tea.  Demonstrations, strikes, general civil unrest and even the occasional full blown riot are teachable moments if  somewhat unusual ones, as an older  couple  touring Egypt some years ago discovered.   A riot broke out while they were in Giza visiting the pyramids. They watched in fearful horror as hundreds of men smashed windows and set cars alight.  An Egyptian woman seeing the couple pulled them into her house for safety.  Together they peeked through the curtains at the rampant destruction. “Why doesn’t the police DO something!” cried the wife.  Her Egyptian hostess calmly replied “Madame, this is the police.”   Public servants are notoriously underpaid and sometimes unpaid for long periods  in many countries across the world.  In this case the police were pushed to the brink having received no pay for some months.

France is well known for the variety and length of demonstrations. My years in France saw many forms of unrest including a full scale riot in which my local metro stop was set on fire.   People outside of France tend to notice the strikes involving transport clogging roads into the country or those affecting northern French ports trapping tourists on one side of the channel just as they are ending their summer vacations.    If you are stuck in one of these and you don’t live in France it is easy to lay the blame at the door of  “the French”.  The fact is  many French people despise this muscle flexing as damaging to their businesses and to France’s reputation. This is why when a strike happens instead of (just) complaining you should ask lots of questions of as many people as possible for a more objective point of view.

Watching the powerful unions strangling Paris every so often opened up a whole new world of topics of conversations for me with French people I met. They were only too happy to explain the history and detail of what I thought I was observing.  I learned a lot about politics under the surface not only within French society but between France and the European Union as well. In time I began to follow French comedians (who frequently satirized the  strike culture) which improved my French.  My respect for the French public also rose as I watched them cope with the enormous inconvenience of  uncertainty in travel to work. There was one particular month of transport strikes that I remember — although it has been superceded by an even worse one since.  The strike kept spreading to other groups of workers who joined them in solidarity.   This sparked counter strikes by other groups who were fed up with the original strikers. Others  protested in turn by stopping work until one very dark and stormy day the whole city ground to a halt. It was reminiscent of the Palestinian west bank  style strikes where all the shops refused to open.  I happened to be at home that day and in solidarity with the rest of the city I decided to  read a book and do no housework.

There were other memorable strikes such as weeks on end student demonstrations which stretched from the Latin Quarter (where I lived) to the Place de la Concorde (where I worked.)  The underground stopped functioning between those locations so I walked to work each day and had ample opportunity to  read the signs which said things like “No to Coca Cola Universities!”   France like the United States is a society founded on a revolution. Revolutions tend to provide guarantees: of freedom, of equality and in the case of French students of the right to enter (almost) any university they select.  University presidents called it “selection by bicycle.” The first ones there got the places.  French universities were struggling with the issue of student selection.  The students found this contrary to their rights as French citizens.  It would have been easy to dismiss this and other demonstrations (there was a recent one about being dismissed from jobs) as self indulgent. After all American students live with the stress of not getting into the college of their choice.  That’s life in America.   But France is not the United States.  So instead of challenging from an American point of view as matters were explained, I listened to parents, university professors and students.  When major social  issues are at stake, don’t blow it with “but in America we do it this way.. or why don’t you see it the way we do?”   Demonstrations and riots are noisy affairs. Don’t dismiss them as foreign or incomprehensible  background noise.  Listen and learn.