Citizens in ACTION

Citizens in ACTION

Citizens in ACTION

Scott Hasty

Riots may not be the right word to describe the demonstrations that have gripped France for weeks.

Students and staff associated with the Literary Paris course at Missouri Southern visited Paris during spring break.

On the agenda was experiencing the many sights, sounds and smells of the many famous writers who lived in Paris. What was not expected was viewing a French civil rights movement in action.

“What we saw were many Greyhound-sized buses full of policeman,” said Dr. Cliff Toliver, assistant professor of English. “You could tell these guys were not messing around. The officers were wearing body armor and were heavily armed. Their presence was very pronounced.”

Though the image of a large police force attempting to control thousands of protestors may illustrate the term ‘riot’, Dr. Holly McSpadden, associate professor of English and philosophy, referred to the demonstrations as non-threatening and non-hostile.

“People call these events ‘riots’,” she said. “When I think of riots, I think of something much less orchestrated and something much more violent. From what we saw, there was none of violence that would be associated with riots.”

“I don’t think that what I was witness to was necessarily a ‘riot’,” said Kim Zerkel, senior English major. “I didn’t see any burning cars or tear gas. Students are mainly protesting in two different ways: they are refusing to go to class during the day and blocking entrance to students and professors that do want to go to class, and they are gathering in the streets at night to demonstrate.”

Toliver said through talking with the locals, no anger was shown toward the demonstrators.

“In our conversations, we didn’t encounter any negativity from people towards protestors,” Toliver said. “Certainly the police were responding negatively. To me it seemed as if there was a lot of Parisian support for the demonstrations.”

McSpadden said civil resistance and orchestrated demonstrations are very much a part of French culture.

Toliver said he thought the group got useful information on who was demonstrating and why. He said it seemed the main group of individuals behind the demonstrations are beginning college students who, in turn, enlisted the aide of older retirees, which led to the involvement of the labor and transportation unions.

“I have to admire these students,” Zerkel said. “They’re paying attention to what is going on in their government and they’re taking action against a law that directly affects them. I think it’s admirable that, somewhere in the world, people from my generation are organizing and letting their voices be heard on issues that concern them.”

Traditionally, French workers had certain labor rights, which included termination of an employee only with a justifiable cause, guaranteed health insurance, and those employees with preschool-aged children were guaranteed childcare.

The new proposed legislation, backed by French President Jacques Chirac, is aimed at limiting some of these rights.

“France has an over 20 percent unemployment rate with young people,” McSpadden said. “This means it’s hard for students to get jobs. This legislation was directly aimed at affecting them.”

With some Southern students visiting Paris for the International Media Seminar being held in late May, some have expressed concern for the safety of students and faculty going.

McSpadden said there should be very little concern for the demonstrations affecting the experience of those students and faculty going.

“These events may affect those going to the Media Seminar,” she said, “in terms that there may be disruptions in transportation.”

These demonstrations may have an ironic benefit to Southern students visiting Paris in May.

“I would think that these demonstrations would energize students,” he said. “Students going will get the chance to see what organized and persistent citizen action can do. I think it would be inspirational to Missouri Southern students to get involved and take their place in society very seriously.”