28th Sep 2023


Cultural issues divide people, social issues unite them

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Some pictures are hard to forget, such as the one which appeared on Twitter in April: a black street sweeper in Paris, wearing a yellow fluorescent vest, sweeping up the rubbish left there the night before by young, petit bourgeois protesters against France's new pension law.

This snapshot shows that the real revolution has not yet broken out in France.

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  • You can mobilise more people with diverse social backgrounds with social protest than with protests over identity issues on gender, race, religion or culture

Among the protesters were indeed many young people, declaring solidarity with the working class. After all, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 — as the law does — will be particularly hard for labourers, who often start working young and have physically demanding jobs.

This spring, with this in mind, some teenagers briefly occupied their lycées in affluent neighbourhoods in solidarity with the working class affected by this law — with slogans like 'even the banker's kids are against it'. One of them was quoted saying: "We don't want a world where workers are run over, do we?"

It is great that the young generation has discovered politics. But as long as politically engaged teenagers, out of social anger, knock over dustbins that the underclass gets to sweep up the next morning, there is still some way to go.

Those demonstrations, however, show that you can mobilise more people with diverse social backgrounds with social protest than with protests over identity issues on gender, race, religion or culture, which dominate the media.

"Since the end of the last century, no demonstration on identity, against immigration, Islam, or wokism, or, conversely, for migrants, Islam, and cancel culture, has mobilised more than a few thousand people," French political scientist Olivier Roy told Le Monde.

"But since 1995, tens of thousands of people do take to the streets to protest against the social crisis," he said.

In the United States, the political landscape is polarised. The country is split in the middle with two camps waging endless culture wars.

Europe, fortunately, is less polarised. As sociologists often point out, consensus on social issues and values is quite high in most European countries.

Recently, there have been ultra-conservative protests, for instance, against drag queens reading books to children in Rotterdam, Vienna and other cities. But only a handful of protesters turned up.

Polls show most Dutch and even more conservative Austrians have no problem with drag queens reading to children. On Twitter, the reading sessions may generate angry clicks, but in real life there is little political credit to be gained.

The Dutch Forum for Democracy, which rants against Muslims, immigrants and everything considered 'culturally progressive', was almost wiped out in the last elections.

French far-right politician Eric Zemmour, who does the same, suffered a big loss last year. By contrast Marine Le Pen, of the Rassemblement National, scored better by choosing not to oppose abortion or same-sex marriage any longer, focusing on broader, socio-economic issues instead.

"Cultural issues divide people, social issues bring them together," Michael Fakhri, the UN's special rapporteur on food, recently said in an interview.

The right to food is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hunger is increasing worldwide, as a result of geopolitical turbulence. Most governments are doing little about it.

Fakhri is trying to convince them to restrict food speculation and strengthen local production. He is helped, he says, by various groups in many countries.

Food isn't woke

"The beauty of an issue like the right to food is that it has nothing to do with left or right, or woke and not woke," he said. "It is a social theme. Everyone can rally behind it. Only then something be changed politically."

To him, the fact that enemies Russia and Ukraine managed to agree on the resumption of Ukrainian food exports — albeit under international pressure — is a case in point.

This is how politics is created: not when cultural bubbles feeling oppressed by each other keep clashing, but when mobilisation takes place for issues that potentially affect everyone. This is about organizing society and adapting it to new times.

In that light, two things are needed. First, young people need to get out of their cultural bubbles and engage in larger social-economic issues.

In France, many are now mobilised — not only because of the pension law, but rather because of the way the government rammed it through parliament.

But taking to the streets spontaneously, knocking over garbage bins and setting fire to debris will not get them there.

If they want social change, they must link with other social groups and push for change through democratic institutions.

Coordination is necessary, so mass can be turned into political weight and demonstrations can become a means to a political end rather than an end in themselves.

But for this, a second thing is needed: effective political parties. In many European countries, with few exceptions, traditional parties that once appealed to voters from several social classes no longer manage to do this.

They fragment and splinter instead, with the spinoffs often using identity issues to mark the difference with others.

These battles distract from broad, socio-economic political mobilisation. In France, they were traditionally anchored in trade unions, which negotiated wages and pensions. But the unions have weakened and the three main political parties are rather unstructured groupings, with a strong leader as the main anchor.

In short, the issues are there, but there is a lack of political coordination and direction. The picture of the street sweeper in Paris makes that painfully clear.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in De Standaard.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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