In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

France in revolt

Posted by smeddum on May 1, 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009
An Irishwoman’s Diary
Irish Times

For the first time since the second World War, France’s eight trade unions are uniting for the May Day marches. Above, medical staff protesting against hospital reforms this week.
Lara Marlowe
IT WAS ONE of those eerie moments when an intimation of what could happen hovers over, as when animals feel tremors before an earthquake.

I was dining with French colleagues in a bistrot in Paris’s 14th district of Paris. Our conversation centred on France’s abysmal “social climate”: seven “boss-nappings” in as many weeks; occupied factories; workers from the Continental tyre factory who ransacked a sub-prefecture in Compiègne . . . The restaurant’s clientele had vanished with the crisis, the Tunisian waiter moaned, dishing up huge helpings to reward his few, prized customers. My friend Hélène mentioned in passing that she’d had a cold shower that morning, because angry utilities workers cut the gas supply to her building. Shades of things to come? France is waiting to see whether May ’09 will transform itself into another May ’68. The mere thought makes the bourgeoisie shiver with trepidation; the would-be revolutionaries with delectation.

France has staged six revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1936 and 1968) in two centuries – not counting innumerable strikes, riots and demonstrations. In other countries, democracy means electing a government to carry out a programme for a defined period. In France, it means electing a government, then trying to overthrow it. The country seems fated to forever replay its founding act; you might say it’s in the genes. Because deep conservatism is also part of the French paradox, each revolution is followed by a counter-revolution.

The former prime minister Dominique de Villepin recently evoked a “revolutionary risk” in France. “It’s not only disquiet, but anger that can take violent forms,” he warned, reproaching President Nicolas Sarkozy for reducing maximum taxation on the rich from 60 to 50 per cent.

Sarkozy’s old friend and labour minister, Brice Hortefeux, accused Villepin of sour grapes because he lost his power struggle with Sarkozy. Today’s situation is “not comparable” to 1789 because the government finances €550 billion in “social shock absorbers”, Hortefeux claimed.

Those “shock absorbers” don’t impress the gas and electricity workers whose wildcat power cuts have affected tens of thousands of French households. They demand a 5 per cent pay rise, a €1,500 bonus and an end to outside recruitment. To this end, they’ve cut power to the Robert Debré Hospital in Paris, a hospice for the dying in Béthune, the Institute for the Blind in Lille, even a fire station . . .

No one proposes reducing salaries or imposing austerity measures like those taken in Ireland. The Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said on April 25th that there would be “riots” in France if the government attempted a pension levy; more than riots, my French contacts say: a revolution.

The front of angry citizens is growing, though no one knows if it will reach critical mass. For the first time since the second World War, France’s eight trade unions are uniting for the May Day marches today. On April 28th, doctors joined forces with university professors – who’ve been on strike for three months – to protest at what they see as the attempted privatisation of public health and education by Sarkozy.

Left-wing students at the Sorbonne are eager to re-enact the drama of May ’68, having cut their teeth on the lycée students’ and anti-CPE (“first job contract”) movements of recent years. The rectors of the universities of Orléans and Rennes, and the head of the Paris University services organisation CROUS, have all been taken hostage.

French police feel empowered by Sarkozy, and have grown more violent in repressing demonstrations. The head of the English department at Tours was arrested, roughed up and jailed overnight when he attempted to take a photograph during a protest.

Most of the business executives who’ve been detained by workers facing factory closures were employed by subsidiaries of foreign companies (including Sony, 3M, Caterpillar). A French consultancy group now advises bosses about to announce bad news to carry a kit containing a pre-programmed cellphone, toiletry bag, change of underwear and a clean shirt.

On a radio talk show about boss-napping, a foreign correspondent expressed disbelief at the impunity enjoyed by hostage-takers. “And nobody called the police when Louis XVI was beheaded,” a French journalist snapped sarcastically.

Tolerance for violent protest is so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that even right-wing politicians express understanding. Two years ago, when he was campaigning for the presidency, Sarkozy told Breton fishermen: “Here, when you demonstrate, when you use violence, it’s not for fun; it’s not to harm others. It’s because you are deeply despairing, because you think you have no other recourse and you feel condemned to economic and social death.” Business executives and “banksters” are the modern-day aristocrats whom the people want to hang from figurative lampposts. Popular outrage is fed by the steady drip of revelations about continuing privilege: Gérard Mestrallet, the fourth highest-paid man in France and CEO of GDF-Suez, just increased his salary to €3.2 million; Dexia, a bank that was bailed out last autumn by the French and Belgian governments, has since dished out €8 million in bonuses.

No one is predicting revolution yet, but there’s a rumble beneath the blanket of ennui, a whiff of past revolts in the air. Watch out. In a famous column published by Le Monde exactly one week before the 1968 student movement started, Pierre Viansson-Ponté wrote: “Les Français s’ennuient.”

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