What US Social Movements Can Learn From France’s Pension Protests

France's ongoing movement against pension reforms has an impressive level of popular mobilization. But it hasn’t relied on the “professional organizers” typical of US social movements — showing there’s a different way to build well-rooted mobilizations.

A protester shouts in a megaphone during a demonstration in Marseille, France, on March 28, 2023. (Nicolas Tucat / AFP via Getty Images)

For the last two months, France has been going through one of its biggest social movements in decades. It has developed in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, which aims at hiking the current legal retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. The plan is widely unpopular: two-thirds of the population oppose the bill, a figure that rises to 93 percent when we look at the active population alone. All eight labor federations have created and maintained a united front, the “intersyndicale,” the likes of which hadn’t been seen in decades. On Monday, March 20, the vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s government fell only just short of a majority in the Assemblée nationale.

From a strictly institutional perspective, it seems that there are almost no obstacles left to the reform being implemented. But the social picture is radically different. As famous novelist Nicolas Mathieu recently put it, “Right now political rule is legitimate like [Richard] Nixon was after Watergate — less and less. Its legitimacy is mechanical, it is produced by texts and solid institutions, but it has lost what gives life to truly democratic political legitimacy: a certain degree of popular consent.”

The current moment feels like a standstill. On the one hand, a further national day of mobilization this past Thursday — even after the failed no-confidence vote — saw wildcat demonstrations and direct action tactics spread throughout the country like wildfire, and they are showing no sign of abating. On the other, the police has increased its violent, indiscriminate crackdown on all sorts of protest, with hundreds of pictures and videos going viral on social media fueling people’s anger and deeply ingrained sense of injustice.

One of the key conundrums that movement participants have faced for the past few months is the following: how to translate people’s shared, widespread discontent into active participation. What forms of collective action are actually able to strong-arm an unyielding government into dropping its bill? I’d like to make a modest contribution to that debate by comparing social movements’ approach in France with their US counterparts. In other words, it can be helpful to think about the current movement in France through the lens of US organizing culture and practices, and conversely to look at US organizing culture and practices from an outsider’s perspective.

Organizers, Activists, Militants

One way of looking at this is through Alicia Garza’s memoir, where she recounts her involvement in creating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in 2013 and expounds her views on what movements are and should be. She hammers home the point that, even though social media and digital tools may make it seem like it’s easy to bring huge numbers into the streets to protest, movements are not built by hashtags and tweets: they’re built by people. Not only that, but the building doesn’t happen spontaneously and intuitively.

Movement building implies a lot of daily work, which is time-consuming, and it requires certain preexisting elements, like a base, “a group of people united around an issue or a goal,” and ongoing commitment. To make her case, Garza recalls the killing of Oscar Grant by a San Francisco transit police officer in 2009 and the protests that developed in response to the killing. An ad hoc coalition of people came together and managed to get the officer fired from the transit police and eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Garza disagrees, however, that this particular instance had a long-lasting effect.

I was a supporter, but no organizer followed up with me and asked me why I had become involved. No organizers asked me how I wanted to be involved moving forward, and no organizers laid out a plan for me to get involved and stay involved. I was a part of a constituency of people who lived in Oakland and care about what was happening in the place I lived, and I was mobilized and inspired, but I was not organized into a base that was ready to take action to achieve systemic change.

The distinctions that Garza draws here, between “mobilizing” and “organizing,” a “supporter” and an “organizer,” a “constituency” and a “base,” will be familiar to many readers — indeed, they’re a core part of organizing lingo. These oppositions will sound so familiar because they belong to the realm of the obvious and the taken-for-granted. Garza is far from the only one using them to make sense of movement activity and political work. They’ve been recently theorized by social scientists and movement actors like Hahrie Han or Jane McAlevey.

The other thing that is particularly striking in Garza’s argument is how much the organizer’s role is presented as a given, how much its existence is presupposed. Garza’s choice of syntax for the verb “organize,” which here refers in a vague way to engaging in politically oriented collective action, is interesting: “organizing” is not something that she hypothetically does by herself (she doesn’t write “I organize” in the sense that you would say “I run” or “I sing”), it is something that is done to her, she is “organized” by someone else — a professional organizer, one who probably works full-time for not-so-decent wages but who still defines their work activity in terms of expertise and professional pride.

For anyone who arrives to US protest politics from a different national context, there’s nothing obvious about these distinctions and the social roles that they imply. As a Frenchman studying community organizing work in Chicago for my PhD, for instance, I had a really hard time, at first, understanding that “activist” and “organizer” actually had very distinct meanings for the community organizers that I interviewed. To me, these were just synonyms, in part because when I tried to think of a French equivalent for each, I ended up with the same word: militant.

These seemingly minor linguistic differences point to real social differences in the broader division of political labor in the United States and France. When it comes to thinking about organizing work, comparing the two countries points to the consolidation of “the organizer” as a distinct role in the United States, whereas it doesn’t exist as such in France.

As I argue in my upcoming book, Occupation: Organizer, in the United States, the organizer’s role has been shaped for decades by complex professionalization dynamics. In the book I focus on community organizers, but similar dynamics have shaped organizer positions in labor unions and single- or multi-issue organizations. These dynamics entail organizer positions becoming salaried jobs, but issues of professionalization go far beyond the question of whether staffers get paid for their work. They also involve the development and institutionalization of certain skills that are brought together into training manuals and training programs, as well as the drawing out of boundaries that distinguish amateurs and professionals, ineffective behaviors and effective ones (think here of the “no organizers laid out a plan for me to get involved and stay involved” part in the quote from Garza).

Professionalization has also shaped political work in France, and it has done so for decades, whether you look at labor unions, political parties, or associations (an equivalent of sorts to US nonprofits). But what seems specific to the current US terrain is the nature of the organizing relationship, where (paid) organizers actively work to step back behind the (volunteer) community leaders or workers that they identify as individuals who can both get involved in the community organization or labor union and be that organization’s legitimate voice. As I show in Occupation: Organizer, this relationship is also bolstered by intense practical and symbolic competition with other social movement actors, who are often looked down upon as ineffective idealists who don’t have the necessary skills to create and sustain genuine popular participation.

This doesn’t mean that cooperation beyond organizational and professional boundaries can’t happen; since professionalization translates into the attempt to exert exclusive control over certain tasks, it becomes more complicated to foster and navigate cooperation between “professional” and “amateur” figures in movements. (I won’t get into the details here, but a critical analysis of professionalization dynamics must also highlight the fact that the development of paid organizer positions in community-based groups has translated into a democratization and diversification of organizers’ backgrounds and demographics. Today, in Chicago for instance, the typical community organizer is an upwardly mobile college graduate woman of color in her twenties or thirties.)

Given Their Due

To highlight how much Garza’s perspective is undergirded by social and cultural parameters quite unique to the US political terrain, I’d like to contrast it with some personal experiences that I had through my participation in the ongoing movement in France. I’m a dues-paying union member, but not a very active one. Most of my activist/organizing work these past few years has been done through other channels. Part of the reason why I’m not very active in my union is that the union local, the one from my university, is not very active beyond board members.

There’s a huge disconnect between the local board and rank-and-file members like myself. Since the protests against the pension reform bill started in mid-January, the union hasn’t organized a single meeting for its members to discuss the ongoing movement. When I called out the board on it, they quickly set up a meeting. There, I voiced my concerns about the lack of internal democratic life and activity. When I suggested that all union members should be reached out to see how they were willing to get involved in the fight — something which would seem like an obvious thing to do for a US organizer — people looked at me with genuine bewilderment.

This doesn’t mean that no organizing is done in France, of course. It just points to the fact that the various tasks associated with organizing work break down differently in France and in the United States. Garza’s lament that she should have been organized by a (professional) organizer would just not resonate with people here. In political parties or labor unions where there are paid staffers, there are no positions where the job is to “organize,” in the sense of recruiting new members and increasing members’ levels of participation and commitment to an organization. Paid staffers do administrative work or act as spokespeople, but not in the paid organizer capacity whose existence and necessity Garza (and others) presuppose.

And in more transient movement circles, where having paid staff is clearly not on the agenda, the intentionality in relationship-building that is so central to organizing work — which is also what can make it so rewarding on a personal level — does not really make up part of militant know-how. And trying to be intentional and systematic in reaching out to other workers can result in polite but firm pushback on the part of your colleagues and comrades.

Why such pushback? At the individual level, it might be that colleagues and other workers are skeptical toward practices that feel top-down, potentially cynical, and manipulative. As I argue in the book, professional organizing does have deep historical roots in corporate management, so that’s not entirely surprising.

At the organizational level, carving out organizer positions would also alter existing divisions of labor, daily routines, organizational resources, and broader perspectives on how and why people get involved. A commonly held assumption is that people join a movement on their own terms, once things are in motion. The role of an organization is therefore primarily to write pamphlets and flyers and press releases that people will be won over by, not to engage in one-on-one molecular conversations with potential future members.

I’d like to use another personal experience from the ongoing movement in France to drive the point home. A few days ago, I participated in a general assembly at my university. We had all gathered in a big, antiquated amphitheater in the Sorbonne — this is before Macron resorted to the infamous Article 49.3; turnout wasn’t huge but it was decent, sixty to eighty people showed up. One of the participants is a grad student I had seen in previous movements before, who’s very active in one of the unions at my university.

During this general assembly, he mostly kept a log of who wanted to speak, called people up when it was their turn to speak up, and asked them to cut to the chase when they speechified for too long. He also wrote on the blackboard some of the demands that were voiced and items that should be voted on at the end of the meeting. In the United States, what this guy did would definitely fall under the broader category of what organizers can do during such public events — setting up all the parameters for public speech and democratic participation to happen, rather than doing the actual speaking. But at the same time, he also spoke up a couple of times at this general assembly, and at others I attended, which doesn’t correspond exactly with an organizer’s role in its US definition.

What does it matter that, quite unsurprisingly, there are practices and roles and norms within social movements that are not entirely similar in France and in the United States? What I have in mind here is not the hackneyed culturalist clichés that attribute collective behaviors and norms to “cultures” understood as everlasting, homogeneous blocs, such as the ludicrous clichés about the “unruly French” or the “entrepreneurial Americans.” The reason why transnational comparison is useful, rather, is that it highlights certain features whose salience might otherwise go unnoticed.

The US organizing relationship has no equivalent in France. Thinking about ways to adapt it into a French context could be one contribution to the conundrum that we are all in. But at the same time, the absence of such a role in the French case calls into question whether the need for the professional organizer’s role is really so obvious.