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Expert comment: French public sector strikes and the parallels with 68 – University of Reading

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Expert comment: French public sector strikes and the parallels with 68

Release Date 22 March 2018

A microphone in a radio booth with a University of Reading logo

Dr Sophie Heywood, Associate Professor in French Studies at the University of Reading provided the following expert comment:

"The parallels with '68 seem there, but not in the details of this strike, which has a clear set of aims, in response to grievances with specific reforms proposed by the Macron government. The enormous general strike in May 1968 was far less defined in its aims, and was not controlled by the unions.

"I say 'seem', because the strike action is part of a much wider sense of unease; of frustration and anger with the global capitalist system. This suspicion of globalisation is something that has long characterised the French political landscape. The results of the first round of the 2017 presidential election are a good indicator of the strength of this feeling currently: roughly 40% of the electorate voted for anti-globalist candidates (21.3% for Marine Le Pen's Front National, and 19.58% going to Melenchon's France Insoumise party).

"The strikes of 1968 and its legacy for contemporary French politics and social divisions is something that all French leaders have to contend with. Most famously, Nicholas Sarkozy blamed the failure of his desire to modernise the French workplace and pension system on the '68ers - in fact, it was really to blame for everything. He was 13 in May '68, and his mother prevented him from joining a pro-Gaullist demonstration. For Macron, the timing of the commemorations and the strike actions potentially threaten to expose the extremely weak foundations of his mandate.

"And as for youth rebellions, the strike actions and protests currently being led to school students in the US in the wake of school shooting, and the Trump administration's inaction, have clear resonance. This year marks the 50th anniversary of 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker from Iowa's campaign to confirm first amendment rights for children in school (she had been given detention for wearing a black armband in protest against the war in Vietnam). The Supreme Court eventually confirmed this right. The ACLU is currently advising school pupils on their first amendment rights, based on this judgement."

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