PARIS - The Tunisians and Egyptians are not the first to have taken to the streets in protest in recent months. The Europeans were there long before them - marching, hoisting banners, stopping vehicles, shutting down businesses, clashing with police and loudly demanding change.
No, the men and women out on the streets in France, Britain, Germany and elsewhere were not demanding a regime change or crying for a political revolution. But they were expressing their dissatisfaction, mainly with matters pertaining to their pockets.
But not only. In Barcelona, during the November visit of Benedict XVI, thousands came out to the streets to protest the pope's stand on gay marriage by staging a same-sex kiss-in.
In Stuttgart, a month earlier, tens of thousands poured into the streets, clashing violently with police, to protest plans for an expensive new railway station. And just before Christmas, thousands of angry demonstrators in London protested hikes in university tuition rates.
But the Vatican did not change its position on gay marriage, the government in Germany did not fall, and despite dozens of injuries and arrests, students in Britain will now be paying higher tuition. In France, meanwhile, several millions took to the streets over two weeks in September and October and almost shut down the country. Flights could not take off or land, trains could not run, garbage was not collected, the national TV and radio stations stopped broadcasting, high school kids did not go to school, university students walked out of classes and gas stations pumps ran empty. And all for what? To protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposals to reform the national pension system and raise the retirement age - proposals that were eventually pushed through.
In Greece, protesters had just as little success pushing their agenda. Three people were killed, scores were wounded, government buildings were set on fire and crowds were sprayed with pepper spray and tear gas during mass, violent protests held there in May.
The protestors' objective: to get the government to back down from planned austerity measures which involved spending cuts and tax hikes, as demanded by the EU in exchange for a bailout.The measures were eventually passed and the rioting subsided, only to resume in December, when thousands of Greeks smashed cars and sidewalks, hurled gasoline bombs into buildings and burned cars in protest at proposed labor reforms that included pay cuts and salary caps.
In a coordinated move that week, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Slovenia and Lithuania to demonstrate against similar measures in their own countries.
"It's a crucial day for Europe," John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, which orchestrated the events, said at the times. "This is the start of the fight, not the end." Sadly however, the end came soon after the start when the measures were passed, the demonstrations losing steam just in time for the holidays.
So, does this mean protests don't accomplish anything? Not at all, say the experts. "History demonstrates the relevance and impact of protest actions," says Chester Crocker, a former diplomat and professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University. "For some societies, protest events punctuate their histories like milestones. The short answer is, they matter. The more interesting questions are why and in what circumstances."
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