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Observations on Politics and Civic Engagement in France

Anya Mukundan | 11/29/21

There are so many reasons why living for a longer period in a country can teach you more than just passing through as a tourist would, including the nuances of a country’s political environment. Of course, anyone can study French politics from any part of the world, but learning how engagement in public issues permeates through everyday life here is harder to achieve without living sur place. To preface, I am probably the farthest from a political science student there is, and I could probably do a better job keeping up with global politics in general. So, for this blog post I am simply summarizing some interesting observations I have made while in France with respect to politics in everyday life.  

I’d like to start with one of the most noticeable topics: strikes. One stereotype that the French have of themselves is that they are constant râleurs, or complainers. I have seen this a little bit in the form of everyday conversation, but also in terms of speaking up against more serious problems. There is always some type of strike going on, and there is an additional popularity of manifestations, or marches. Protests and freedom of speech exist in the US, but here it is even taken up a notch. Civic engagement is particularly important to the French. It is evident by the sheer number of strikes and manifestations that the French place priority in the power of the people as a method to create change in their government. Strikes and manifestations occur so frequently they become a normal part of everyday life. For example, I rarely rely on public transportation on Saturdays, and I can always expect a notification on my public transport app that certain metro or bus lines are shut down due to Saturday manifestations. My bosses at my local internship left work early the other day to pick up their kids when the public schools closed for teacher strikes. Additionally, many friends trying to travel have had their trains delayed and/or cancelled due to train worker strikes.  

Manifestations currently revolve around COVID measures and the “Passe Sanitaire.” My Passe Sanitaire is checked at restaurants and when attending larger events. People must be vaccinated, recently recovered, or have a recent negative test to get a pass. This initiative is overall meant to encourage vaccinations in a country with a historically large population of vaccine skeptics. However, a lot of people think the government is overstepping by restricting people from accessing public services based on health history. Some people have even told me that they avoid going to places that require the Passe Sanitaire because they do not support what it stands for. A similar sentiment is circulating in New Orleans as well. Another interesting thing I noticed is that while French people can be quick to express their political and moral beliefs in the form of conversation or manifestation, I see no yard signs, bumper stickers, or window posters as I often would see around New Orleans and throughout the US, even though the France presidential election is just around the corner.  

In terms of political views, I have heard multiple times that in the eyes of France, Biden is not considered to be left, but rather to be moderate. While I had not considered it much before, it makes sense that different nations would have slightly shifted views on what “moderate” looks like based on their population's demographic and beliefs. Being abroad, I have started to see beyond the spectrum of views within the US and towards the US itself on a spectrum alongside other countries. 

Another different topic of note is the history and geography of France in comparison to the US. France as a nation has existed for much longer, and in comparison to the US it reports a much lower population of immigrants. Therefore, national identity is somewhat of a different thing to consider. One person I talked to here mentioned how immigrants should conform completely to French culture (clothing, names, etc.) if they want to join French society. Often being taught of their Gaulish ancestors, some French people see their nation as a unified culture that others must assimilate into, much like the old idea of a “melting pot." This is just one perspective, but it was nevertheless a little surprising to hear after living in American communities that at the very least attempt to embrace diversity. Embracing diversity involves a certain degree of inclusivity that is sought out in the US in areas it is not in France. For example, resumes in the US are skill-focused, although there is still an inherent bias when it comes to peoples’ names. French resumes, however, allow for blatant discrimination when they can be required to include a picture, age, and even marital status.  

The longer I have lived here, the more nuances I have noticed in how political issues manifest themselves in daily life. As I compare these observations to my experiences in the United States, I am forced to consider a broader view of my own country in an international context. For example, when I see examples here of how France is a secular state (one observation being the bans on religious expression in public schools), it forces me to think about what the American interpretation of separation of Church and State truly means. However, it is always important to note that beyond national laws, my observations stem from one city in one region in France, and that generalized international comparisons are interesting, yet never the whole story.