La manif

Farmers demonstrate in Paris

“Tu vas à la manif?”

The first time someone asked me this, I remember thinking: it sounds like fun. Somehow the formality and seriousness of publicly demonstrating for a cause is lost in the cute short form: La manif’. And the reality is that it’s a bit of a party.

The French have raised the demonstration to something of an art form. This comprises a range of behaviours, from going out on strike to peaceably demonstrating in the streets, or resisting in more subversive ways. When it escalates, you end up with public disobedience, armed protests and violence against various police forces.

It always seemed strange to me that la Fête du Travail, held each year on the 1st of May, inevitably features a massive demonstration of labour unions. In North America, we celebrate our Labo(u)r Day on the first Monday in September with a barbeque and a few beers. The French take to the streets to remind their bosses that they are ready to strike at any time.

Of course, not everyone goes. I remember my Belle-mère telling me years ago that she agreed with her colleagues at Air France for going out on strike, rhyming off an entire list of rights and wrongs worth fighting for. When I asked if she was going to join them at the manif, however, she said no, she didn’t want to be seen at such an event. Besides, she hated crowds and was looking forward to a quiet day off.

When the company I was working for in Lyon was bought out by a German group, then merged with another Swiss company, our site held a bit of a manif. The pharma industry is not notorious for strike action; it’s a fairly conservative field of well-paid scientists and sales reps. But when any group of employees is threatened with potential job loss in France, you can be sure that the unions will get people out on the street. As I recall, there was a gathering of people waving signs, mostly dressed in while lab coats for effect. There were speeches and air horn blasts. I don’t remember if we processed anywhere. Most likely I took a page out of my mother-in-law’s book and went home early.

At such events there is often a festive air. It’s a bit like skipping off school.

There are sing-songs, usually led loudly off-key by some fellow with absolutely no musical ear. There are balloons, the burning of effigies of leaders. Stands with hot chestnuts and sausage vendors on the sidelines. There is a lot of creativity, even ingenuity among French demonstrators. Of course, there are also massive traffic jams and police everywhere. Water trucks and even tanks.

This past week, hundreds of farmers dumped truckloads of straw on the Champs Elysées in protest of the government’s proposed law to illegalize agricultural use of the chemical glyphosate. They camped out on the straw and managed to block access to the capital’s most famous avenue.

It’s a complex issue which tends to inflame public opinion on both sides. The use of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup which is already banned from private use in France, has been shown to be carcinogenic. At least according to some; others maintain there is no definitive scientific evidence of its danger to man. Certainly there are insufficient widespread studies, over sufficiently long periods, but it is surely not good for the environment or anyone who lives in it. I read one set of studies that found the chemical altered the ability of honeybees to fly and forage for nourishment. It has been so widely used since 1975 that traces of glyphosate can be found in virtually everything we eat.

The problem is that without it, commercial agriculture is doomed to lose money. And in France, that means many hard-working farmers who already struggle to make a living will suffer at least in the short term, until new methods and practices can be introduced. That is why Macron has appointed renowned tree-hugger Nicolas Hulot as minister of the ‘transition’ écologique. What is needed is a profound change in the way we grow our food to more sustainable methods. Such methods exist, and they work, but it will take time and money. In the meantime, there will be demonstrations.

The fact is, resistance is part of the French culture. It’s a bit like free speech to Americans or the monarchy to the Brits.

So next time someone asks, I’m going to the manif.

Et toi?



  1. francetaste · September 28, 2017

    Short-term vs. long-term thinking. Precedents get set, often without full information; example: Roundup on the market. Another example: retirement ages that were lowered during booms. Another: the carbon-fueled economy. Then something happens–scientific research, demographic changes–and the previous way of doing things becomes unsustainable. But the vested interests will fight tooth and nail to keep things the way they always have been, no matter how clear the writing on the wall. Reports about no-till farming sound like there ARE ways farmers can get good yields without lots of chemicals.
    That said, I hope Macron can come up with a different approach to the labor market that improves flexibility without unleashing the terrible abuses and precariousness rampant in the U.S.

    • MELewis · September 28, 2017

      You make a good point: decisions are made based on information available at a particular time. It is only right that those choices be reexamined in light of new evidence, changing norms and patterns. Not only will the vested interests fight tooth and nail, as you rightly point out, people generally dig their heels in when faced with any change, particularly if it implies having less, working more, etc. This is only human behaviour, but it’s frustrating. The latest I heard today is that pensioners are going out in protest of the CSG tax increase on fixed incomes. I’m sure they have a point — but who doesn’t? They can’t pull the money out of their hats. Let’s hope the new government holds firm.

  2. Osyth · September 28, 2017

    Your Belle Mère cracks me up …. I love your reminiscences of her. The agriculture issues are indeed complex and whilst I certainly err on the side of banning Glyphosate, moving towards systems that are tenable for the farmers (who as you rightly say are struggling already in so many areas) and safe for consumers with no wondering whether or not there might be a carcinogenic effect is tricky. Nicolas Hulot is a savvy choice for shepherding the transition since he is certainly a warrior for his cause and not afraid of the battle. I have to say though that when the announcement was made I did have a severe attack of the Jacques Tati’s and had to watch M. Hulot’ Holiday for the laughs. As for les Manifs – bring it on. That, surely is what democracy is about and the French do them with such style and panache and most of all have some sort of tolerance of the actions unlike my homeland where marching immediately brands you as an extremist. Hey ho. Another reason I find it more like home here, I guess because as you will guess – I do like a good demo 😉

    • MELewis · September 28, 2017

      Glad you enjoy the anecdotes about my Belle-mère. As it happens, three years after her passing, I miss her more than ever. These little vignettes are my way of keeping her memory alive. I do believe that getting away from glyphosate and other chemicals is the right thing for all concerned. If there is a country that has every reason to keep the quality of food high, it is France. However, it seems that everybody and their uncle is out protesting at the moment. Now that the numbers on budget cuts are coming down the pipeline, we’ll have strikes and manif’s up the gazoo. This morning I heard a radio interview with somebody in Grenoble discussing Macron’s possible intention to restart works on the TGV between Lyon and Turin. Not sure why the guy I heard was opposed to the project but I think it’s because he’s promoting other urgent transport issues around Grenoble. Bottom line is that everybody is pulling the blanket to get their area/project/interest on the table. I’m sure there will some good manif’s happening soon near you. 😉

      • Osyth · September 28, 2017

        It may therefore amuse you to know that I walked to the tram stop a couple of hours ago and waited and waited with many others. Eventually a notice was posted that between Gare and Les Halles there were no trams because of …. un manif! And le manif? Turned out to be the tram drivers themselves…. presumably egged on by the TGV issue. 😅

  3. poshbirdy · September 28, 2017

    I love that the threat of action is always there. In fact, I just love the whole ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude of the French

    • MELewis · September 28, 2017

      Yeah, me too. Although it can be hard to live with, it commands respect.

  4. Mél@nie · September 28, 2017

    @”The fact is, resistance is part of the French culture. It’s a bit like free speech to Americans or the monarchy to the Brits.” – free speech in the USofA aka “land of the free”?… well, lemme be sceptical! 😉

    • MELewis · September 28, 2017

      Lol. It’s all about perception. Ask any American what their highest value is and they will probably say free speech. The reality is something else altogether, as we’re seeing with Trump’s unwillingness to accept the NFL players ‘taking a knee’ during the national anthem.

      • Mél@nie · October 1, 2017

        QED… et ceci explique cela… 🙂

  5. George lewis · September 28, 2017

    Demonstrations are fine as long as they do not interfere with the public in any way. Block my free access to a building or a street or movement then you have lost any support for your cause that I may have had and I consider you the enemy.
    On the subject of glyphosate do French farmers use it as a killing and drying agent before harvest to improve yields as they do in North America?

    • MELewis · September 30, 2017

      I don’t know exactly how the farmers use it. It’s a weed killer, so presumably to prepare the ground before planting their crops, and certainly to improve yields. The cost of getting rid of it seems steep, but in the long term it seems preferable to keeping a ‘probable’ carcinogen in the food supply.

  6. acflory · September 28, 2017

    Interesting post. On the one hand, yes, no one likes change, especially change with negative consequences in the short term. On the other hand, the whole genetically modified food issue began with Monsanto embracing GM technology in order to secure an ongoing patent on Roundup.
    Should governments world-wide have known better? Or were they ‘lobbied’ into turning a blind eye to the potential for harm?
    As someone on a very tight budget I should be agreeing with your farmers in order to keep costs down, but…prices keep going up and up anyway, so I’ll get slugged no matter who does what to whom…
    -Gallic shrug-

    • MELewis · September 30, 2017

      I didn’t realize there was such a strong link between Roundup and GMOs. Makes perfect sense with your context. I have nothing against GMOs per se, but I think that if countries like France have the means to adequately feed the population without the use of potentially dangerous chemicals, they have the obligation to go in that direction. As you say, there’s a cost but long-term there is probably also a cost in continuing its use. BTW, you do the Gallic shrug very naturally! 😉

      • acflory · October 1, 2017

        Yes, I’m not against the science or the research either – you can’t hide knowledge in a box. But the application of that knowledge is where choice comes into it. Western consumers don’t need gm produced food and poor consumers in the Third World can’t afford it. Plus further reducing the food diversity of the planet is a very bad idea – potato famine anyone? And then there’s simple corporate greed….-sigh- I’ll stop now.

  7. Suzanne et Pierre · September 29, 2017

    Interesting post as usual. When we moved to Paris for a few years, we had attending a “manif” on our list of things to do but we went with one that supported a government policy (which is rather unusual!) which was in favour of gay marriage. It was a very positive manif and a lot of fun but I have seen some others during our stay in Paris that weren’t as much fun…But it is truly part of the French culture to protest anything and everything…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · September 30, 2017

      Thank you, Suzanne. Interesting that you demonstrated in favour of gay marriage or what the French call ‘le mariage pour tous’ (a misnomer if I ever heard one: surely marriage by definition can’t be for everyone?). A great cause though and certainly a more peaceful atmosphere than a manif where people are angry. These things often degenerate unfortunately, sometimes in line with agendas that have nothing to do with the cause. I’m thinking of ‘casseurs’ who are sent in by political rivals to stir up the crowds. I wonder: do such things happen much in Canada these days?

      • Suzanne et Pierre · October 2, 2017

        Unfortunately, “casseur” or “anar” or “antifa” are becoming the norm in demonstrations in Canada. They are just hooligans that want to “casser la baraque” or loot but pretending that they are trying to fight racism and other causes. There has been many battles between these “antifa” (for antifascist) and the extreme-right which is coming out these days in Canada. In my opinion, they aren’t helping the cause with their use of violence and confrontation with police…we certainly live in a strange world these days.

  8. zipfslaw1 · September 30, 2017

    I’m pretty sure that the stupidest thing I ever do is go to demonstrations in countries where I’m not a citizen–and even stupider—where I don’t speak the language! But, I do anyways. 🙂 .

    • MELewis · September 30, 2017

      Sounds like a smart way to learn a lot about the culture. Some things run deeper than language, and the French love of the demonstrating is one of them!

  9. M. K. Waller · October 24, 2017

    Bees in America are dying; there’s an effort to ban Roundup but I doubt anything will change. Much is made of free speech here, but the right is rapidly diminishing. The right to bear arms, on the other hand.

    • MELewis · October 25, 2017

      Some people’s speech seems to be freer than others’. And perhaps it should be: ‘The right to bear harms’?

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