French Left Pioneers a Radical New Tactic: The Picnic Protest
Activists take food off the shelves and invite shoppers to dine with them to highlight the plight of 'Generation Y'
In exactly a week's time, in a supermarket somewhere in or around Paris, a couple of dozen young French activists are going to choose an aisle, unfold tables, put on some music and, taking what they want from the shelves, start a little picnic. The group "L'Appel et la Pioche" (The call and the pick axe) will have struck again - fruit and veg, dairy or the fish counter will have been transformed into a flash protest against global capitalism, rampant consumerism, bank bail-outs, poor housing, expensive food, profit margins and pretty much everything else that is wrong in the world.
The "supermarket picnic" will go on for as long as it can - before the security guards throw the activists out or the police arrive. Shoppers will be invited to join in, either bringing what they want from the shelves or just taking something lifted lightly from among the crisps, sweets or quality fruit already on the tables.
"L'Appel et la Pioche" have struck four times so far and have no intention of stopping what they claim is a highly effective new way of protesting.
"Everyone is bored of demonstrations. And handing out tracts at 6am at a market is neither effective nor fun," said Leïla Chaïbi, 26, the leader of the group. "This is fun, festive, non-threatening and attracts the media. It's the perfect way of getting our message across."
Linked to a new left-wing political party committed to a renewal of politics and activism, Chaïbi's group represents more than just a radical fringe and has been gaining nationwide attention.
A veteran of fights to get pay and better conditions for young people doing work experience, Chaïbi claims to represent millions of young Frenchmen and women who feel betrayed by the system.
"We played the game and worked hard and got a good education because we were told we would get a flat and a job at the end of it. But it wasn't true," said Victor, 34, another member of the group. "We have huge difficulty getting a proper job and a decent apartment."
Chaïbi, who works on short-term contracts in public relations and is currently looking for work, told the Observer that the group's aspirations were limited. "I am not asking for thousands and thousands of euros a month as a salary or a vast five-room apartment. Just something decent."
In recent years, the problems of France's "Generation Y" or "babylosers" have made headlines. As with many other European societies, after decades of growth, this is the first set of young people for centuries who are likely to have standards of living lower than their parents. According to recent research, in 1973, only 6% of recent university leavers were unemployed, currently the rate is 25-30%; salaries have stagnated for 20 years while property prices have doubled or trebled; in 1970, salaries for 50-year-olds were only 15% higher than those for workers aged 30, the gap now is 40%. The young are also likely to be hard hit by the economic crisis.
New ways of working mean new ways of demonstrating, too. "We are already on precarious short-term contracts, so there's no point in going on strike," said Chaïbi. "But a supermarket is very public and we make sure the media are there to cover our actions."
So far reactions have been good, the group claims. In one supermarket in a suburb of Paris, the activists say they got a spontaneous round of applause from the checkout workers. Elsewhere, security guards have been "friendly". Everywhere in France, the problem of a weakening "pouvoir d'achat" - the buying power of static wages - is a cause for resentment.
The economic crisis is further fueling anger. Though not yet as badly hit as the UK, thanks to tighter regulation and much lower levels of personal borrowing, French businesses have still been laying off staff amid predictions of a massive rise in unemployment this year. Unions have been largely passive in the face of threatened redundancies, accepting go-slows to preserve jobs.
With the French Socialist party in disarray, alternative forms of political protest on the left, particularly a breakaway communist faction led by charismatic postman Olivier Besancenot, have made inroads. Protests about the homeless or against the expulsion of immigrants have largely taken place independently of the Socialist party, which is mired in feuds and ideological incoherence.
One new group is the Jeudi Noir, which organizes heavily publicized squats of vacant buildings in Paris. Named Black Thursday after the day classified advertisements for flats appear, activists recently took over a clinic that has lain empty at the heart of the Left Bank for nearly five years.
"This is not just about finding myself somewhere to live," said Julien Bayou, 28, who is now living in one of the former clinic's offices. "We are making a political point. We just think it is wrong that a building in perfect condition should be empty for years when so many people need somewhere to live."
Chaïbi sat in the kitchen of the former clinic. "It's not just about the supermarkets," she said. "It's about fighting the system."