Strikes in France: Delacroix and revolutionary zeal | Deep Focus

The French have protested with great fervour for centuries. Still, in 2023, the latest strikes in France demonstrate the will to rebel is exercised just as readily as in the French Revolution of 1789.

Strikes in France Kiran Ridley

The French have protested with great fervour for centuries. Still, in 2023, the latest strikes in France demonstrate the will to rebel is exercised just as readily as in the French Revolution of 1789. In this chapter of Deep Focus, Mae Losasso contrasts Paris’s social action strikes to Delacroix’s great tricolour homage.

Above: A member of the SUD Union stands on top of a bus shelter waving a flare as over 400,000 people took to the streets of Paris in protest as part of a nationwide strike against President Macron’s Pension reform plans and the rising cost of living on January 19, 2023, in Paris, France. Following the French government’s announcement to push the retirement age from 62 to 64, unions have called for mass social action, with employees in transport, education, energy and the health service joining the nationwide strike, with major protests across France. France’s CGT union has also threatened to cut electricity supplies to lawmakers and businessmen amid the nationwide strike. (Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)

We are living through a time of civil unrest and discontent. With a cost of living crisis and an ever-widening pay and pension gap, the UK has seen increasing levels of strike action in recent months, from nurses to postal workers, rail workers, and university lecturers. But no strikes in this country have had quite the same visual impact as Paris’s social action strike last Thursday (19th of January) over pension reform plans.

Kiran Ridley’s photograph, which shows a member of the SUD Union standing on top of a bus shelter and waving a flare, captures the revolutionary fervour that has characterised France since 1789. Look at those billows of smoke, lit by the neon pink of the flare (a colour that looks suspiciously close to Pantone’s colour of 2023, the revolutionary named ‘Viva Magenta’). Look at those waving red flags emblazoned with graphic black text; look at the SUD Union man, his pose staunch and decisive, his expression impassioned, almost gleeful. There’s so much spirit in this protest (or, at least, in Ridley’s rendering of it), like Boris Kustodiev’s painting The Bolshevik (1920), whose central figure strides through the streets of Moscow bearing a red flag and wearing a remarkably similar outfit to Paris’ SUD striker.

Eugène Delacroix Liberty Leading the People

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830)

But despite its constructivist colour palette, the painting that Ridley’s photograph reminds me of is Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). Look at the billows of smoke gathering on Delacroix’s battlefield; look at the boy, standing to the right of Liberty, a pistol raised in his right hand, just like the flare of the SUD man. And look at Liberty’s flag, the scarlet panel of the Tricolore waving towards the left of the frame, just like the one in the Parisian photo. Hold the two images up side by side and, save for the photograph’s on-trend magenta hue, there’s an unmistakable resemblance.

Could it be that a particular revolutionary zeal is minted on the French people, which seeps, almost imperceptibly, into the art (and photography) of protest? Of course, that’s a stretch – but it’s hard to dispel the thought when you compare Ridley’s photo with some of the UK’s strike images from last week (I’m thinking, in particular, of a picture of Scottish teachers striking in Edinburgh. The central figure is clinging to a lamppost and waving one of those hand flags with an expression of fury that looks overblown beneath his little banner. It’s undoubtedly no Delacroix).

pantone colour of 2023

Pantone’s Colour of the Year 2023

Of course, we chopped the head off our king more than a century before France did, but even that didn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi as any of France’s triumphant revolutions (and we still have a monarch). Even our civil war paintings – what few there are – are as lacklustre as our contemporary strike photographs. Where are our equivalents of the vast and statuesque canvasses of Delacroix and Géricault?

No, Ridley’s photo clinches the deal: France has the last word in revolutionary pzazz (sorry, USA). Will the strike itself be as effective as its aesthetic? Only time will tell. In the words of Liberty herself, all we can say is vive la révolution (in Viva Magenta for 2023, obvs).

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