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The French do it better : A first-hand account of the pension protests

Paris, France. A barbecue saunters forward, gliding along unused tram tracks. At its helm, a bearded man multitasks, at once serving and protesting. Sausages and slogans abound. The internet goes wild. La Marianne, it seems, has been replaced. A new paragon of Frenchness is on the block.

Sadly for the anonymous icon’s revenue stream, I was not in Paris that day. I was however, in Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city, and the protests, let me assure you, were in full swing. The locals were unhappy, and Monsieur Macron was going to know.


Head to campus. As yet no sign of any protesting. As ever, no buses to be seen at this hour, but at least the metro works fine. There was only a small march last week at 11am. Doubtless this week will be no different.


The usual mass of humanity debarks the train, winding its unthinking way above ground towards campus. Yet the weak dawn is not the only one to greet the crowds. A mass of striped red and white tape cordons off the campus entrance. Maybe the crime scene investigator shouldn’t drink during work.

Fortunately, the plastic tape is more of a visual barrier. Even 8am me can get through. Some students, who I assume had put the tape up, watch, giggling at their peers’ desire to attend classes.

Bemused, yet feeling sparks of defiance I hurry towards the history building, where a crowd is gathering. Halfway there, Viktor intercepts me. Some backstory on Viktor: he was adopted aged three into a Franco-Spanish family living in Galicia from Bulgaria. At the first class a month earlier, he had decided to sit next to me as I had an “English keyboard”. He had quickly announced that “English was his weapon against Putin,” and that he was going to marry either an Irish or Scottish woman. Apparently, English and southern Celtic don’t cut the mustard. Also, he hadn’t yet visited the British Isles or indeed met any Irish or Scottish women. He had become my guru of all things French. Anyway, he announced that there was a blocage. A term, dear reader, that meant nothing to me.

It transpires to be a wholescale blocking of the university buildings. In front of every entrance academic furniture is padlocked together. Every conceivable doorway is filled with tables, chairs, filing cabinets. One even has a noticeboard. Clearly the lecturers need to assign more exams.

It was unclear when these blocages would be moved, if indeed they would be. All the library security guard can say, peering out from behind a barricade of chairs, is that his supervisor was making a decision at 8h30.


The library supervisor says no opening. It is unclear if this was because they cannot, or simply do not want to move the furniture.

Hearing this, Viktor calls it quits and makes his way home. Clearly I can’t go to my lecture, and now not the library. But, it is 9am and that’s slightly too early to give up on studying for the day. So I decide to go find a café. It being France, we would be spoilt for choice.


Still no information if my lectures are cancelled. In theory, I have one starting at 8h10 and finishing at 12h40, so I’m hardly distraught to be missing it, but sadly, this lecture may appear in the exam. If the blocages have been removed and the lecture begun, I would rather be there, listening to it.

To say ‘packed like sardines’ would be an understatement. The metro was like the London Underground at peak rush hour. With no discernible end to the flow of people, the trains just deposit people into the crowds. Luckily, a local is also going our way and arms raised like the redeemer, she parts the crowds. A modern day Moses. Being only slightly stupid, I rush to follow her before the gap closed.

The university is still blocked. The crowds have gone, but someone has got hold of a microphone and is haranguing a small crowd. Apparently, he’s more interesting than he looks as there is a lot of cheering. The other change is a crêpe stand.

Defeat tastes sweet. Time for home.


I find out where the metro crowd had been going. It is not hard. They had chosen my route home to march. The first scenes were apocalyptic; an unending crowd moves under a haze of grey smoke, echoes of loud music and an enormous banner.

It quickly became apparent that this first impression was wrong. There are indeed banners, microphones and even a lynched dummy, but there are also costumes (one man was dressed as Obelix), pop music and, of course, the protesters’ vans double up as food trucks as well as somewhere to hang banners. Anger has not really infected the crowds. They amble along, chatting, listening to music, even waiting for friends on the side. It must also be mentioned that strikes here do not apply to the hospitality sector… the cafés and bars were thriving. So too were the bakeries.


Please may the blocages still be up. I have another marathon lecture at 2pm, and my bed is, well, my bed. I thought it best to email my lecturer. No response. In fact, he would not respond until Friday evening.

I message a classmate. Also no response.

It’s only a few stray tables and chairs. Surely, if they were to remove them, it would have been done this morning? Maybe someone is protecting them too? Surely my classmates will not be eager to get to class.


Class was on.


Attendance was not obligatory.

Illustration: Ahira Varkey

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