Protests -- a sure sign of spring in France

First, French farmers ransacked shipments of foreign produce, then French truckers blocked highways, and finally French steelworkers stormed government buildings.

It is nothing unusual. In France, such demonstrations are like April showers: They signal that the normal springtime bloom is approaching.

Last year, it was the students, doctors, and farmers. This year, only the cast has changed.

The most recent outbursts have tended to be dramatic and colorful. Often they are violent. Sometimes, as with the French Revolution and the general strike of 1968, they signal a convulsion of the entire society.

But often the storm represents the anger of a particular interest group. These blow over with little long-term danger.

''It's a national tradition,'' explains Stanley Hoffman, Harvard professor of French civilization, who is teaching at the Sorbonne this year. ''When social groups feel they are being squeezed, they go to the streets, and they are often not good at controlling emotions.''

Many factors lie behind this rush to the barricades. The Times of London has speculated that a mix of alcohol abuse and hot Latin temperament foster violence. But there are deep historical reasons that may give a better appreciation of this French tradition.

Perhaps the most important is the overweening power of Paris. Ever since Louis XIV promoted mercantilism during the 17th century, the state has been the central player in the country's economic life. Francois Mitterrand's recent nationalizations were only the most recent expression of this tendency.

''Here, you can't strike against the employer,'' says author Francois de Closets. ''The state owns the steel industry, so steel workers address their complaints to the government. The state sets farm prices, so farmers attack the government. The state sets gas taxes, so truckers take their anger out on the government.''

This creates great demands on government. It, not the market, is expected to solve all problems. Consequently, de Closets says, as soon as a Frenchman feels aggrieved, he heads for the streets to demand a solution from Paris.

''We've never believed in competition,'' de Closets says. ''If one mustardmaker wants to sell at a 20 percent discount, all the other mustardmakers will cry foul. They will demonstrate to tell the government to fix the prices instead of trying to compete with him.''

Moreover, this immense state power is usually concentrated in one man. France , unlike the United States or Britain, has few legislative or legal checks on the executive.

Under such a system, public opinion counts for little unless it is backed up by mass mobilization. In the US, for example, small pressure groups used public hearings, lawsuits, and congressional lobbying to bring nuclear power plant construction to a halt. In France, however, former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing felt so confident of his power to proceed at full throttle that the week after the Three Mile Island accident, he announced a substantial expansion of the nuclear program. Naturally, antinuclear rallies followed.

Still, a suffocatingly strong government does not explain everything. Even during periods when Paris was relatively weak, the demonstrations did not slacken.

''The Fourth Republic of the 1950s was a weak system full of falling governments,'' Hoffman notes. ''It was also full of groups trying to get their way with Paris by making a fuss over just about everything.''

Why were these protests necessary? Hoffman and others answer that there is no other convenient way for a Frenchman to show his anger.

Seen in this light, the rallies reflect the weakness of the groups protesting. The French do not organize long-term lobbying well. Typically, the antinuclear protesters could not sustain their movement and blunt the government's program.

On a larger scale, unions have the same problem. Because they count only 20 percent of French workers as members, they cannot use conventional labor tactics.

In most cases, the government lets the dissatisfied workers march and then takes no action. It must be pushed to respond to the protesters' gripes -- which explains the frequent resort to violence.

If French truck drivers, for example, had marched through Paris, no one would have listened. But by stopping traffic throughout the country, all of France took notice.

The police response often determines the level of violence and the success or failure of the movement. In the truckers' strike, the police stayed clear of the blockades, apparently believing any effort to move the heavy lorries would only have made matters worse.

In many street marches, though, the police have been ready, even eager, to intervene. Standing in massed ranks with visored helmets and riot shields, bristling with guns, batons, and tear-gas grenade launchers, the French forces of order are a provocative sight. Their tactics in a confrontation can be equally provocative.

Many demonstrators relish this confrontation. It ensures publicity and puts pressure on the government. Mobilizing huge numbers peacefully can bring equally good results. In its battle to save parochial schools, the Roman Catholic Church recently mobilized some 600,000 peaceful demonstrators. Saying he had heard their message, Mitterrand promptly backed down on his plan to give the government control of all schools.

Just as often, however, the demonstrations fail to attract the numbers or cause the violence needed to sway the government. This was the case with the recent march by steelworkers. Only some 20,000 took part, and they were remarkably orderly. Mitterrand ignored them.

This background helps put the recent unrest against the Mitterrand government in perspective. There has been no broad, well-organized revolt like the 1968 uprising. Instead, the problems have been confined to specific interest groups. While the government has made some concessions, none imperil its legitimacy.

To be sure, the situation remains volatile. The demonstrations have helped pull the government's popularity down to an all-time low, and they could yet swell into a real crisis.

''We've learned to accept so much violence that there's always the danger of an escalation here,'' explains de Closets. ''To be heard in this country, you must be louder and tougher than anyone else on the streets.''

So far, though, it has been just another season of April showers.

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