American political scientist and labor activist, Larry Portis, who teaches at The American University of Paris, has contributed the following comments on French politics, the unions, and the press.
Ever since the French Revolution of 1789 France has been a place where political opinions are expressed so openly and frequently that they seem to be more a sport or amusement than anything else. Certainly the French differ from Americans, who are said to consider political debate in bad taste outside of electoral contests. French families relish gathering for Sunday dinner and shouting about their political differences. Voltaire had one of his characters in Candide say that "wherever you go in France, you will find that their three chief occupations are making love, backbiting, and talking nonsense." This unflattering portrait could be attributed to a somewhat jaundiced view of what is often taken to be the superficiality of the French (and especially the Parisians), but the political intensity characterizing French culture results from the peculiar evolution of the society and governmental institutions.
It is generally known that the terms "Right" and "Left" in relation to politics stem from the seating arrangements of the first National Assembly created during the French Revolution. What is less understood is that a tradition of radical confrontation and extra governmental means of political expression is not only rooted in social relations and political practice, but remains entirely respectable to much of the population. If the state bureaucracy is considered a monolithic and virtually impregnable entity, the French do not worship their institutions, laws and constitution(s). After all, over the past two centuries they have had five republics, two imperial dictatorships, and several other experiments in constitution-building.
The present regime is the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958 during the colonial war in Algeria that threatened to provoke civil war in France. Many believed then that only a strong executive power could end the rapid changes of government that plagued the parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic, and the new constitution was virtually tailor-made for ex-general Charles de Gaulle. Like rules in general, the French do not believe their political institutions to be divinely inspired. In spite of the decline of some of the anti-establishment political parties and movements (especially the Communist Party), it is not difficult for the French to entertain at least the possibility of a significant restructuring of laws and institutions.
Since 1968, most of the French are less formal, more open, more conscious of living in an interdependent world where French culture is no longer the standard by which all others should be judged. For these reasons May 1968 remains a powerful point of reference. The most prominent soixant huitards (sixty-eighters), the student leaders of that time, continue to be models of political action, even if they have gone in different directions. Alain Geismar has joined the power structure, Daniel Cohn-Bendit is active in the German Greens, and Jean-Pierre Duteuil continues to follow the anti-establishment, alternative politics of 1968.
The most powerful is the CGT (General Federation of Labor). Created in 1895, it has gone through some important changes of orientation over the past century, but has always retained its character of working-class militancy. An off-shoot of the CGT, formed in 1947, is the CGT-FO, most often called Force Ouvrire (Workers´ Power) or simply FO. More oriented towards cooperation with employers and governments, the direction of FO still reflects the cold-war ideological preoccupation which attended its birth. Another major union is the CFDT (French Democratic Labor Federation), formed in 1964. The rising star of French unions in the aftermath of 1968, advocating autonomy from political parties and workers´ self-management at the work place, its slavishness to the Socialist Party after the latter´s electoral victory in 1981 has alienated masses of its members. In 1988 the CFDT even purged itself of its most militant (and critical) adherents. Strikes, demonstrations and marches are an integral part of life in France and any extended stay would be incomplete without attending a good-sized manifestation. You may find it to be an inspiring experience.