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?