Paris: The first thing I noted on arriving here at the New Year was the number of homeless in an especially cold winter. They seemed to me, a frequent visitor, to have expanded exponentially in recent years. Then, in ensuing months, I saw more and more people in the streets—not the homeless, but protesters. First in small clusters, later in larger numbers, and soon in large demonstrations. The principal target was a government bill, the CPE (Contrat première embauche or “First employment contract”), which allowed employers of large firms to fire new hires under age twenty-six without explanation within two years of taking them on. But there is a broader picture. The French word for “demonstration” is manifestation. A very uneasy society was manifesting itself loudly.
You expect to see demonstrators if you live, as I have been, near Place de la Bastille, whose most famous protest turned into a world-historical revolution. A tall greenish column stands where the famous fortress sat in 1789. It is surrounded daily by swirling traffic. On its crest, perched forward, a gilded, winged “Génie de la Liberté” holds a torch in one hand, broken chains in the other. At the pillar’s base reads the inscription “To the Glory of French Citizens/who armed themselves and/fought in defense of Public Liberty.” These words memorialize the Revolution of 1830, when a liberal monarchy replaced a conservative one, not the Revolution of 1789, when a fumbling absolutist monarchy was replaced by a constitutional one, which was then replaced by a republic that was consumed by the Terror, which was then supplanted by a sort-of-constitutional-this-and-that, and then by Napoléon, and then by the conservative monarchy that was overthrown just when this sentence began, in 1830.
If you peer into the Place today from the corner of rue St. Antoine, you will see, looming behind the column, a shimmering hulk, not a fortress but the architectural equivalent of a beached whale of metal and glass. This is the new opera house of Paris, inaugurated in 1989 just before the bicentenary of the Revolution by the late president, François Mitterrand. It is one of several imposing public works he built in tribute to his socialist self. As I looked into the Place on March 28, 2006, I saw a large banner hanging on the house with words in red and black, “Opéra Bastille en Grève.” The Opera was on strike, but not due to one of the usual management-labor disputes. Another banner read, “Retrait du CPE,” “Withdraw the CPE.” A nationwide, one-day general strike had been proclaimed by the unions. Lines of policemen stood behind me in black-blue padded uniforms, truncheons at hand. In the Place itself, for some four hours, chanting demonstrators marched by. Banners identified protesters from the various trade unions, student marchers from universities and lycées, and various parties of the left. This immense show of disc...
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