Abroad on Broadway: Protesting the French Way

Kassandra Céssaire. Photo courtesy of Kassandra Céssaire.

Kassandra Céssaire with a sign that reads “support for Léonarda and Katchik,” the two Roma students recently expelled from France. Photo courtesy of Kassandra Céssaire.

The French are known for being unhappy. Studies regularly say that we are one of the most dissatisfied nations in the world, more discontent with our current living conditions than countries at war like Afghanistan. On October 17, while I was stuck in the challenging and exciting daily life of an exchange student in New York, the news from France brought back some of my sweetest memories, and one of the French paradoxical moods I miss the most: happy discontent.

French high school students, mainly in Paris, were protesting the deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old who was in school in France before being sent back to Kosovo with her family. It was the conditions of her expulsion that triggered the controversy: the police seized her during a school trip, when her parents’ application for asylum was rejected.

The students are not only protesting against a “firm” immigration policy— one that is supported by the majority of the French— that was unexpected from a left-wing government. They wanted to remind the government that they consider their schools to be sacred, and education is “no border,” as their signs read.

When I explained this event to an American graduate student at Columbia, he expressed his sympathy with Leonarda’s situation. But when I told him that thousands of high school students were blocking their schools with barricades and protesting in the streets, I made out a mix of surprise and amusement in his eyes.

The protestors’ enthusiasm, which was once my enthusiasm, came back to me and took me away from Broadway and Manhattan in a swirl of comforting memories, provoking this positive homesickness.

When I discussed this with my French friends in New York or back in France, I realized this that they felt the same way. Some of my friends are already teachers in high school, and though they were not able to participate that day, they could not help but look at the barricades with a smile.

One of them, now a philosophy teacher, decided to change her lesson plan for the day and initiate a discussion about the right to rebel against legitimate institutions, referencing Kant’s hesitations when confronted by the French Revolution. She was amazed by the energy her students threw into the debate.

The word protesting implies anger and dissatisfaction, but the French gave it the colors of joy and a sense of community. In other countries, demonstrations are the sign of dangerous tensions within the political community, but the French have elaborated it to the point of a savoir-faire, if not an art. Leaders are accustomed to respecting the law, and the protesters themselves have internalized “good protesting behavior” for generations. The police always almost perfectly control those protests that can last entire afternoons and turn into huge street parties.

Kassandra Césaire, interviewed by La Jeune Politique about her participation to the protests, expressed exactly this state of mind. “The rage, the motivation, the refusal of the inacceptable…you can feel all that,” she said. “We were thousands, across hundreds of high schools to show that we disagreed, to show that we were here. It was beautiful, it was powerful, really.”

Even though many French people will tell you that they are sick of constant strikes and demonstrations, they also keep in mind that in this country, when your indignation meets the indignation of some your fellow-citizens, your common dissatisfaction can quickly turn into a political force; a possibility that any democracy should cherish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: