Occupy the Champs Elysees? Non, merci!

PARIS Tue Nov 1, 2011 11:01am EDT

Holiday lights hang from trees to illuminate Champs Elysees in Paris as rush hour traffic fills the avenue leading up to the Arc de Triomphe November 22, 2010. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Holiday lights hang from trees to illuminate Champs Elysees in Paris as rush hour traffic fills the avenue leading up to the Arc de Triomphe November 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau

PARIS (Reuters) - Hordes of seething protesters, tents of rage and clashes with the police have become regular sights in New York, London, Madrid and Rome. But over in Paris, despite a history of revolution, the French just aren't taking the bait.

Although activists in Paris are hoping to rekindle the spark this Friday in time for the G20 summit in Cannes, French attempts at launching movements akin to the "Indignados" in Spain or anti-banker "Occupy" sit-ins across the Channel and the Atlantic -- which have galvanised hundreds of thousands of supporters -- have so far fallen flat.

In May an estimated 1,000 people gathered in Paris' Place de la Bastille, a symbolic location after the fall of the hated Bastille prison to revolutionaries in 1789, but police cleared them out. Subsequent marches were in the hundreds of people but failed to take root, with the holiday season putting the brakes on anger.

Student leaders are now pinning their hopes on a new bid to "Occupy La Defense" - the business district west of Paris that houses the headquarters of French bank Societe Generale, among others - on Friday. But they admit that rabble-rousing is a tough business these days, even with the G20 landing in Cannes.

"We don't know how it's going to go...We're hoping it will take off but we just don't know," said Baki Youssoufou, a 30-year-old Sorbonne graduate who heads a student union taking part in the event. "Will we see the same numbers that we saw in Madrid or in New York? I don't think so. We'll need a few more weeks for that."

What has happened to the nation that produced the era-defining lockdown of May 1968, or the 1995 strikes that successfully fought off pension reform? Not a lot, some say, which is precisely the point.

Whereas Londoners can join the dots between banker bailouts and swinging cuts to public services, and Madrid-dwellers can balk at their country's record unemployment of 5 million people, the French aren't being made to eat cake just yet.

Despite a stuttering economy and high levels of public debt, French households are still solvent, the generous social security safety net is still paying out and the jobless rate, though still high, has come down since its 2009 recession peak.

"Over in the U.S., you can really feel the crisis. Entire neighbourhoods are feeling it," said Mabrouk Sassi, a lawyer based in Paris. "Here, what have we really felt, despite our colossal (public) debt?"

The frustrations behind the protests in London and New York are also more broad-based and therefore less appealing than the more parochial concerns that usually trigger popular French protests, according to Sassi.

When the French way of life is threatened by the passing of a particular law or withdrawal of a specific benefit, he believes it is far easier to whip up public support.

Currently, the more intangible anger against deregulated market-driven capitalism is not chiming with the risk-averse French whose regulated economy has avoided many ups and downs.

This also explains why the French, who cherish their savings and often have more than one bank account, did not take up ex-football star Eric Cantona on his offer of a nationwide 'bank run' last year. "The French know full well that if there's a run on the banks, their banks will collapse," said Sassi.

But "Occupy La Defense" supporter Youssoufou is still hopeful that something will change, if not now, then soon.

He thinks that a lot of the problems so far have been with the timing, or the logistics; he is also somewhat perplexed that many of his fellow activists are holding back from getting the deprived suburbs of Paris involved, for fear of stigmatising black and Arab minorities.

With France's "AAA" credit rating now potentially under threat, it will no longer be so hard to convince people that France could soon go the way of countries like Greece or Spain, nor that the whole system needs to change, he says.

"Many of us in France thought what happened in Spain could never happen to us," he said. "Now, with the fact that France's rating could come down and bring catastrophic consequences, the idea that we could one day be bankrupt like the Greeks is getting closer."

(Reporting By Lionel Laurent, editing by Paul Casciato)