Adèle Naudin is the French-American Cultural Foundation’s Scholar-in-Residence in Paris.
How are protests perceived in France compared to protests in the United States? Does the concept itself differ? And what are the dynamics between both countries when it comes to social movements? Do they influence each other or reject the idea of any affiliation?
First, we can look at the description of such movements. The language used to describe these kind of events influences the way we perceive them, as not all words carry the same weight.
“Protest” may seem as neutral as it gets, but when being more specific, the meaning changes: Is it a riot? Is it a sit-in, march, parade, procession, walk, rally, demonstration, movement, occupation, or boycott? A variety of words can be used to describe the dynamics within a protest.
When talking about protests in another country, it gets even trickier to describe these events. French follows the intricacies of American English when it comes to describing social movements, even though some words have been graciously borrowed (sit-in, boycott). Commonly used French words for protest include: manifestation, mobilisation, rassemblement, grève, marche, occupation, barrage, and blocus. It is, of course, possible to find similar concepts in both languages, especially when the forms of protests are similar. However, just like with any translation, it is nearly impossible to find phrasing that will capture the exact same meaning because the words – in both languages – have varying weights.
Not only do the words describe the dynamic of the event, they also define its strength and duration, depicting the event as either moving or immobile. Does it gather a large crowd or a small but vocal group? Is it a brief movement or supposed to continue for a long time? The description, however, also carries a political meaning, often hinting at whether it is a radical or broad movement, and defining if it is violent, legitimate, or supported by numbers.
Both languages often refer to the spatial aspect of protests: are people moving, taking over, or immobilizing? These aspects are key in both countries, but the perception of space itself isn’t. Public or private space hold a very different place in both systems, which the concept of freedom of speech and its limits shows, so even that can be difficult to grasp from another country.
This gives us a perspective of why it is difficult to assess from abroad the exact place a protest holds within a country. How can French media describe with accuracy the birth, development, and perception of Black Lives Matter? Conversely, how can an American journalist accurately report on the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests)? Both of these movements are grounded in national issues specific to each country.
Finding consensus around vocabulary isn’t always easy, as demonstrated by evolving descriptions of the events of January 6, 2021. Initial reactions described what was happening on Capitol Hill as a “rally” or a “protest,” and over time the language shifted toward describing it as an “attack or “insurrection.” This situation gave birth to a battle of words over how to describe the events, which continues to this day and is heavily influenced by political beliefs. Several observers pointed out the danger presented by the varying approaches of the media when describing the events of January 6 compared to the BLM protests of 2020.
So what are the dynamics between protests in France and the U.S.? Do these movements influence or parallel each other in both countries? As stated earlier, some social movements are intricately linked to a specific issue. For example, the New York Times stated that comparing the Yellow Vests to the rise of other populists movements in the West, including the U.S., was vain as the movement was a French anomaly, untied to any political parties in the country. The events were very specific to France and hard to put into perspective compared to similar movements in other countries. Some forms of protest may even be impossible to transpose from one country to another.
The popularity of Blocus (occupation of universities) with students in France can’t be properly grasped, much less applied to the U.S., and for a logical reason. The idea of occupying a university and preventing teachers and students from entering for political or social demands can work in a system where a university education is close to free. It’s easy to imagine the unhappy reaction at an American university, with upwards of $75,000 in annual tuition, if students were prevented from attending classes for several days. Yet student blocades are quickly catching on in France and easily executed.
The very different relationship between identity and community in both systems also affects protest dynamics. The heart of American public life often focuses on being true to one’s personal identity. Therefore it is only natural within that system to define yourself by your ethnic, religious, and social group. That concept doesn’t exist in France where the republican concept of equality has given birth to an affirmation of secularism and color blindness in public life. This limits any references to an ethnic or religious community.
Since the 19th century, belonging to a group or community has been at the heart of protest in the U.S. Marianne Debouzy, a French historian specializing in American history, states that “marches have enabled people to show and represent their diversity but also to publicly assign a place to each group. These parades allowed distinctions— hierarchical and ethnic differences to be made apparent, to include or exclude certain groups.” The goal of the protests evolved from the basic freedom to organize and strike over modern day critical areas of concern. The importance of identity, and the social distinction of demonstrators, has been historically critical to the perception of social movements in the USA.
Analysis of French dynamics tends to be done more through the political views of the demonstrators, their affinity to a political party or influence, or their work and class, but NOT their racial or religious identity. Racial and religious identification goes against the core values of the system. Author Erik Bleich, in an article for the The International Journal of Press/Politics, remarked that from 2015 to 2020, a textual analysis of thirty-five articles from each country, which discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and its relationship to France from both a French and American perspective, revealed very different media coverage of the movement. U.S. journalists frequently identified the activists as members of marginalized society, whereas France was reluctant to do the same and even more reluctant to make a comparison with the movement in the U.S. Oftentimes they suggest that the events were a result of the American system.
The recent events regarding the shooting of 17-year-old French Algerian Nahel Merzouk by a policeman, similar to George Floyd’s death in 2020 in the U.S. which spurred the BLM movement, have given rise to criticism of violence and racism in French police forces. The difference is that Americans discuss race and even make it a defining aspect when talking about protests and social issues. Linking police violence to its racist roots is an easy step to take. However, in France it becomes a challenge. The color-blindness of France has shown its limits in recent weeks, with a growing division and distrust of law enforcement. The incident has revealed the obliviousness around the racial issue in some institutions.
These two systems don’t function separately, however, as protests carry on quite easily across borders, although they usually carry nuances. Even if a movement travels, its perception can be challenged by traditional and social media coverage. In social media especially, there appears to be a gap between the importance and/or radical aspect of events. Some movements will be depicted as more violent or grand than reality proved, as demonstrated by the depiction of “No Go Zones” by Fox News or some descriptions of the Yellow Vest movement taking over Paris and closing off the city. Many Parisians were untouched by the Yellow Vest Saturday protests. Social media had a key role in that depiction, which was made clear by the recent widespread use of hashtags Protest in France (8.6 billion views) and France Protest (7.8 billion views) on TikTok.
These videos, however, are usually popular due to their shock value showing the most absurd situations such as couples drinking wine in front of burning bins, or a young tourist wanting to sample the most famous croissants of Paris with a marching crowd in the background. This media behavior contributes to even more misinformation, not only due to translation or conceptual issues. The description and perception of events seems to only be more distorted as news crosses the ocean, with a propensity to exaggerate or, on the contrary, downsize the events and their impact.
There is an irony here. Protest activities in the United States and France spring from different causes and put into play very different actors. Both American and French protests, however, largely and proudly share a common belief that protests are legitimized by Fundamental Rights. Historically, both countries have long competed for the self-proclaimed title of “Land of Rights and Freedom.”