The Blog

Politics of Expression in France and the U.S.

Today is Bastille Day, France's national holiday celebrating political action. I think the French still carry that revolutionary spirit with them today.
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Spending this summer in Paris means that I'll be here for the celebration of la Fete de la Federation, or Bastille Day, which is today, July 14th — actually, by the time you read this, we'll already have been fete-ing over here for at least six hours in our time zone. For the last couple of weeks I've been talking to my French friends, learning a little bit about their national holiday, and along the way I think I've also learned a thing or two about what "revolution" actually means.

The word for me, until now at least, has conjured up the idea of a major event(s) engendering some sort of major change. For instance, the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 kicked off the French Revolution: the middle-class people of France got fed up with living under the constraints of an absolute and tyrannical monarchy and decided to change things in a huge (and sometimes very violent) way, much in the same way our ancestors did in the U.S. around the same time.

I think the French still carry that revolutionary spirit with them today. Before I came to Paris, people warned me that the French would be very rude, especially considering I was an American. But I think they're wrong: Parisians are in fact not rude, they just express themselves more openly (and perhaps differently from the way we do it in America, where every question tends to be answered with a universal "great"), and from everything I've seen, that carries over into how they generally approach political activism and expression too. Voters here don't want to work more than 7 hours a day, or 35 hours a week? Then they elect leaders who reflect their wishes in policy. If their leisure time still gets threatened, they protest vigorously...and then shoot down the proposed EU constitution (for which their leaders were strongly beseeching from them a "yes" vote) in retaliation. Also, before the recent French presidential elections, my Parisian friends organized huge parties around the various candidate debates. A record 86% of eligible voters here turned out to place their ballot.

In other words, in terms of politics, the French set their own limits, and don't settle for substitutions. I saw this firsthand: my boyfriend is visiting Paris and a week ago had a nasty infection from a bug bite on his leg. It was getting worse by the minute so we asked some French friends for recommendations and went to see a doctor. Within a half an hour, my boyfriend had been examined, consulted with extensively (no rush in Paris, even with other patients waiting) in the doctor's comfortable office, and walked out with three prescriptions in hand (to be filled with exactly zero hassle in another five minutes at the Pharmacie across the street). All for the standard charge of 22 euros. (Yes, just like in Sicko — take that, Sanjay Gupta). &mdash We marveled about the ease and cheapness of the visit to another French friend who replied, "Yes, and if the price goes up to even 25 euros, people will be protesting in the streets."

And while in America, thanks to frustrated voters, the last round of Congressional elections also foresaw a sea-change as Democrats assumed a majority, our country in comparison still feels a little lackadaisical where true transformation is concerned. In some ways I wish we could harken back to the U.S. in the 1960's and 70's, where massive, macro fervor for change--revolution and momentum--was inevitable as young people were forced to become more connected to the political issues of the day due to the Vietnam War draft (not that I am in any way advocating a draft today!).

A feminist slogan from that period touted the idea that "all politics is local," and my experience in Paris has applied it quite literally in my life: my travels here have allowed me access to a different mode of thinking. It recently dawned on me that "revolution" doesn't always necessarily have to incorporate large-scale agitation; in some ways it has evolved to become more simply a matter of expression.

What that means politically is this: no matter what the method, it's important to act. It's simply not enough to complain about how bad things are. And for me, that can be something as small as expressing it, like the French do, when I see something distasteful, unsettling, or upsetting--not sitting quietly when sexist comments are "playfully" bandied around, or sorting out my garbage even when it's not the most convenient moment to recycle. Fomenting a "revolution" in our day and age, just like living in a foreign country, is all about a person's ability to change her mindset and how she reacts to things.