Over the last month, thousands of protesters and strikers from several sections of the working class in France have taken to the streets in opposition to French President Emmanual Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Macron and his supporters say the law is a necessary reaction to the rising percentage of the French citizens relying on a thinly-stretched pension fund.
The protesters’ response is simple enough: the working class should not be the ones bearing the economic brunt of the change.
To them, billionaires and corporate executives with money to spare should be the ones helping to fund retirement plans. The workers have already been sucked dry by the economic system, and now the government is coming back for seconds.
While the size of this protest movement is noteworthy in itself, there is something else about these strikes that is interesting to us — something that is lacking in similar strikes seen in the United States.
The French are exhibiting class consciousness and solidarity unheard of in America.
Whether it be rail workers, air traffic controllers, healthcare professionals or teachers, working people from all walks of life are participating together in the protests.
Here, strikes are usually confined to a single union or field, and we have seen many of the prominent strikes in the U.S. in the last year take this form.
The rail worker strike last year that was blocked by the Biden administration before it could accomplish any of its goals, the Los Angeles teachers’ strike last month that fizzled out after just three days and the strike in Hollywood by the Writers Guild of America that materialized in the last week all encompass a single set of grievances by a single group of workers, allowing them to be shut down quickly without change instead of banding together to form a more powerful force.
Rail workers, teachers, Hollywood writers and every other subset of the workforce do not see themselves as having anything in common with each other despite their shared lack of control in comparatively less powerful positions in the larger economic system. This weakness in protesting alone is being proven to them time and time again.
This is not the only difference between the protest movements in the two countries.
The specter of a rising retirement age being pushed by Macron creates a clear incentive and a clear enemy for the entirety of the working class in France, something that does not often materialize in the U.S.
Without a clear view of who and why they are protesting, disparate groups of workers in the U.S. will likely never come together.
This is something that — despite a significant difference in scale — Lehigh students can relate to.
We’ve talked before about the transient nature of our grievances toward the university. Lehigh administration can, without fear of a student uprising, wait out our complaints for four years before inviting in a new set of students to enrage.
Still, there is another element to our struggles with generating meaningful change on campus that parallels the struggles of union workers nationwide.
Who are we protesting against? And who do we turn to in order to get things done?
At a certain point, using words like “administration” to characterize these decision-makers becomes so overused that it feels hollow.
Lehigh students should be taking the opportunity to voice their concerns at meetings that offer spaces to speak up — or even make their voices heard when it’s not asked for because maybe then it’ll yield better results.
Show support for the actors who give us the best chance of creating the campus we want to see, or at least getting a straight answer.
The voices of individual students are weak and shrill — they can be easily overwhelmed by the bullhorn of authority. A chorus of dissent from our collective mouths can boom over even the largest construction equipment ransacking the campus. That’s what those in power truly fear.
Whether it be over the retirement age, higher wages or the incessant projects gentrifying the South Side, a broad coalition of forces and a clear view of the perpetrators and modes of action are required for disempowered groups to create meaningful change. It’s as simple and cliche as truly establishing power in numbers.