“It’s not a revolt, Sire, or a revolution; it’s the beginning of the end of the reign of big business, of capital, over the minds of the people,” a courtier might have told Jacques Chirac if, like Louis XVI, he had asked what was happening outside his palace as some 200,000 chanting marchers, joyful and determined, crossed the Place de la Bastille on December 12, the climax of this French crisis. There are tides that alter the whole landscape, and the wave of strikes that paralyzed France for more than three weeks was one of them, because it awakened people from their political slumber. Main Juppé, the Prime Minister, who first played for time, was almost swept aside. He recovered only by yielding to the transport workers, the spearhead of the public employees’ offensive. But he was not alone. Professional pundits were equally bewildered, as their usual incantation–it’s irrational: Brussels, Washington, the I.M.E, will never understand–was dismissed with contempt. Behind their simple slogans–“All together! All together!”; “Social Security belongs to the workers; we fought to get it, we shall fight to keep it”–the demonstrators delivered a deeper message, one that had not been heard for years: If your system cannot give us and our children a decent life, then so much the worse for the system.

Each crisis has its own features. This time students were not the inspirers of the movement; perhaps they will be politicized by the strike. The opposition parties–above all, the Socialists, burdened by their “culture of government”–were passive bystanders. They could blame Juppé for clumsiness or undemocratic procedures, but they accepted the same rationale. The labor unions–or, to be precise, the two main unions, the Communist-dominated C.G.T. and its former enemy, founded with C.I.A. money, the F.O.–were more active. This, in a country where union participation has been dropping, and only 10 percent of the work force is organized. The striking rank and file of the third major union, the once radical C.F.D.T., were handicapped by the stand of their leader, Nicole Notat, who in the name of “modernity” acted as a blackleg and an undisguised servant of the establishment. (This crisis foreshadows a restructuring of French unionism.)

The C.G.T., the F.O. and the teachers who joined them did well because they had learned some lessons. Unlike the past, this time they backed the strikers from the start and allowed them to shape the union line in democratic fashion through daily assemblies, discussions and votes. Yet the most impressive feature of this exciting period, besides the incapacitating effect of the transport strike on usual business, was its impact on the political life of the country at large, illustrated by mass demonstrations that gathered momentum day after day in towns big and small: 150,000 people in Marseilles, nearly 100,000 in Toulouse and Bordeaux, but also 5,000 in towns of fewer than 50,000. For U.S. equivalents, imagine more than a million marching in New York, 200,000 in Philadelphia, 75,000 in Atlanta. Half a million protesters in one day in the streets of France, then a million, then almost 2 million–this was unprecedented. After years of disappointment and disarray, of austerity and ideological submission, this was the comeback of the left that so many had buried.

Let us beware of triumphant tones. The strike never spread to the private sector. The confirmation was not quite a crucial class conflict and, in these days of mass unemployment, industrial workers seem unready to take risks for less than that. Second, the movement never fully proclaimed what it wanted. Maastricht, shorthand for European integration and its attendant deflationary attack on the welfare state, stood for what was being rejected. But an alternative was never clearly put forth, not even when intellectuals met with strikers at the railwaymen’s Parisian quarters after the big demo. The origin of that meeting is interesting. Earlier, a handful of “experts” posing as leftists, like the sociologist Alain Touraine, published a text praising the “courage” of Nicole Notat. Incensed, several hundred intellectuals, including the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the philosopher Jacques Derrida, signed a petition backing the strike. When some of the signatories met in public with the striking activists, they agreed it was necessary to come up with a positive plan, though without pretending that they had one or that it would be easy to elaborate.

The strikers were not looking backward. To the horror of the establishment, domestic and foreign, they simply rejected its version of the future. A movement by definition, however, cannot stand still. In the fourth week, with the specific demands of the transport workers met, the strike was slowly coming to an end. Although Juppé had not yielded on Social Security, the big marches staged throughout France on December 16 were no funeral processions. People were in a fighting mood. Something had changed. For three weeks the picketing railwaymen talking around their braziers, the strikers in their assemblies, the marchers in the demos, the people rediscovering their voice, have all been saying, in their own fashion: We refuse your rationale. Officialdom now loudly proclaims that France cannot be the odd country out. But why should it be? Quite often in the past Paris has shown the way. This time its message to Europe, and the world at large, is plain: We must not only seek but find an alternative, because the world offered to us is unbearable. Historians may one day describe the winter of 1995 as a divide in the political climate. For years simply to seek a new world has been either a crime or a folly. From now on it is the main item on the agenda.