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Lessons From Across the Channel: Putting Protest at the Heart of Democracy

12/11/2015 10:59 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Throughout modern British history, mass demonstrations and protests have often been demonised and depicted as the work of trouble-makers, hooligans and extremists. It was the same old story last week as 10,000 students descended on London to protest against tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants, which led to the arrest of 12 protestors.

The majority of news coverage of the protest focused first and foremost on 'scuffles' with police, rather than the peaceful majority who took to the street to make their voices heard. In the aftermath Telegraph columnist Lukas Mikelionis described students as 'obnoxious', claiming that 'they don't understand the purpose of education'.

Regardless of whether you support scrapping tuition fees or think that the new system is actually more efficient, it is crucial to support the role of protest in a democratic society.

As peaceful students and activists like Lisa McKenzie are arrested, young people are hit hardest by the abolition of student grants and possible further rises in tuition fees, and the Tory government cracks down on the right to strike, we should learn from our cousins across the channel.

Expressing dissent through protest is just as much a part of French culture as wine and cheese, and taking to the street to show solidarity is part of everyday life. We may ridicule the French for striking at the drop of the hat, but we could learn a thing or two from our politically engaged neighbours.

Having lived in France for six months, I experienced an attitude towards protest that felt totally different to the one I was used to in the UK.

I was in Bordeaux during the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks in January this year, and was bowled over by the reaction of the conservative, sleepy city. 140,000 people took to the streets to show their support for the principle of freedom and speech, which amounts to nearly 60 % of the urban population.

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Photo: Katrina Hanak

The feeling of solidarity was incredible as the streets were packed with people off all ages united to defend a cornerstone of democracy. Not everyone who adopted the slogan 'Je suis Charlie', was a true supporter of freedom of speech, but the mobilisation across France sent a clear message to those who thought the cartoonists 'had it coming'.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks were undoubtedly a particular event, and a similarly violent attack on a country's values would have sparked strong reactions elsewhere, but I can't image a mobilisation of that scale in Britain.

This is because the French mentality is more politically engaged, and its political history is heavily influence by protest, radicalism and three revolutions. The UK's more moderate political culture is more hostile towards protest and dissent.

Nevertheless, at a time when young people are likely to be worse off than their parents, and will be hit hardest by the affordable housing crisis, and students are going to be riddled with debt later in life, it is more important than ever for this generation to take to the streets, show solidarity, and call for change.

As Michael Segalov recently wrote, 'dissent must not be criminalised'. Instead we should follow the French example, and encourage protest as a motor for change.