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Protesting in France is a hungry business, and when the country’s angry citizens put down their placards, they seek out sustenance.
Not for classic French cuisine though. Above all else, demonstrators demand spicy hotdog sausages.
Beef and lamb merguez sausages, spiced with cumin, chile or harissa to recipes imported from North Africa, are the food of the streets in France – and not just in the recent protests against pension age reform that have spread through the country.
There was merguez in May 1968 when student uprisings whetted appetites for revolution and there was merguez in ’95, when furious crowds tore apart plans for welfare reform.
When yellow vest-wearing “gilet jaune” protesters brought parts of France to halt in 2018 to demand political and economic change, the grills were fired up once again and out came the sausages.
Such was the meaty role played by merguez in keeping the gilet jaune movement nourished that they were labeled a “revolutionary tool” by François Ruffin, a French politician seen as a contender to lead the far left at the country’s next election.
The sausage’s role in helping fuel this year’s sometimes violent protests was observed by academic Emmanuelle Reungoat.
A maitresse de conférence – or associate professor – of political sciences at the university of Montpelier, Reungoat spent time meeting with demonstrators and observed that many first-timers joined in because it was an opportunity to hang out with friends and enjoy a barbecue.
“They brought with them their usual leisurely habits and that’s interesting because that is also what makes a massive social movement,” Reungoat told CNN. “A social movement can tip into an uprising or a revolution.”
France’s annual Labor Day public holiday offers exactly that mix between partying and politics. Held annually on May 1, it’s a celebration of workers’ contributions that is also a chance for people to kick back and enjoy a day off.
Most years, France’s trade unions organize parades to mark the occasions. In 2023, for only the third time since the end of World War II, they staged a joint event in Paris, united by their opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
And of course, there was merguez.
Approaching the rally point at Place de la République you could see the smoke. The smell carried down the boulevard in the spring breeze. It was mouthwatering.
French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote reverentially of how the scent of freshly baked madeleine cakes could trigger a remembrance of things past. As French newspaper Le Monde put it, the wafts of sausage are “the madeleine de Proust of the workers’ movement.”
At one food stall, shrouded in its own aroma, vendor David Joancalves was pushing the meat around in his fryer, waiting for orders – giving customers half a baguette to hold the meat and inviting them to “help yourself to sauces” – a row of condiments in various shades of red and orange.
Joancalves has been selling merguez for 15 years and has been at every protest this season. At this year’s May 1 demonstrations he was expecting a peaceful atmosphere. “I think it is going to be more festive, there are families,” he said. In fact, the day culminated in pitched battle between protesters and riot police.
Joancalves’ merguez cost 7 euros ($7.70 dollars), perhaps a little on the expensive side for a street food sausage in a cheap piece of bread.
‘A moment to share’
There was a better deal across the square where the union trucks were lined up, their colorful liveries like floats on a parade. Here, the Communist Party was selling Champagne from the back of their own truck for 5 euros a glass.
It was the French Communist Party which helped bring the merguez to French protests in the 1950s. The sausage first appeared at the Humanité music festival, started in 1930 to fund the Communist Party’s Humanité newspaper, which is still printed today.
“The grilled merguez took on, with the fight for Algerian independence, a sign of solidarity with Maghrebian workers,” wrote Nöelle Gérôme, an ethnologist from France’s prestigious National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) in a seminal and perhaps unsurprisingly unique article on the sausage’s place in French protesting, edited by historian Julia Csergo.
Easy to cook and even easier to eat, the merguez was soon being served alongside “revolutionary fries” to create cheap meals dished out in France’s never-ending social struggles.
On the Place de la République, the Force Ouvrière, another labor union, was selling fries for 2 euros. Its merguez was only 3 euros ($3).
“We sell, I am not going to say at a loss, but we make practically no money,” Pierre Maunier, a railway worker, said, adding: “We have a food truck for all our members, for everyone who wants to eat, have a drink, talk, share and it is a moment to share, that’s it.”