A couple of years ago, I chanced to be in Paris on 1 May. I was travelling for work, and it hadn’t even occurred to me beforehand that I’d be in the French capital, of all places, on the traditional day of worker protests.
I realised soon enough, however: it was first thing in the morning that I saw the initial televised reports about the demonstrations and protests that had traffic snarled. And in the early afternoon, the demonstrators with their banners and a whole troop of drummers drumming away actually passed right by where I was staying. That was in a fairly posh neighbourhood not far from the Jardin du Luxembourg, surrounded by accordingly posh businesses: a fashion boutique, a nice little patisserie, and a gourmet food shop where you could have exclusive baguettes made up. As the demonstration passed by, the businesspeople stood out in front of their shops and applauded. They showed zero anger about the blocked-off street, the noise emanating from the demonstrators, or the jammed traffic—quite the contrary. Which baffled me, so I spoke with them. The proprietors of both the gourmet shop and the patisserie told me that they were with the demonstrators 100 percent. It’s always good, they said, to show those in government that one won’t tolerate everything. Otherwise, they could get away with anything—with tax hikes, increases to the retirement age, cuts to entitlement programmes. The fashion designer nodded in agreement. I was compelled to think of the predictable rage that Vienna’s first-district merchants fall into whenever a demonstration so much as gets close to their shops. Of how a total ban on demonstrations there was once a topic of serious discussion. And I thought to myself: those folks could really learn something from their Parisian colleagues. Namely, that demonstrating is a fundamental right whose exercise makes all citizens stronger—and for which having to deal with the odd traffic jam is really quite a small price to pay.