Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The right stuff - Marion in Maryland

The French chattering classes registered surprise a couple of weeks ago at a very political speech that Marion Maréchal Le Pen delivered to the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. Marion is the youngest of the Le Pen political dynasty, the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National party and the niece of Marine Le Pen, the party’s current leader. Surprise, because after having served one term as France’s youngest ever MP, Marion announced that she would not seek re-election to parliament following Emmanuel Macron’s victory in May of last year. Instead she said that she was leaving politics altogether. How – and why - she was on the bill at CPAC has not been revealed. But her presence there served as a reminder that when her aunt, Marine, was running for the presidency of France, she singularly failed to get a photo-op with Donald Trump despite making a trip to New York for that very purpose.

For somebody who has decided to leave politics and devote the next years of her career to setting up an academy for young leaders in France, Marion’s political instincts are clearly as sharp as ever. During a ten minute presentation in highly accented and sometimes incomprehensible English, she borrowed largely from the ideology and vocabulary of Brexit and Donald Trump with well-rehearsed lines like “make France great again”, “we want our country back”, “never underestimate the people” and “France used to be the eldest daughter of the Catholic church and is now the little niece of Islam”. Her audience applauded loudly when they recognised a familiar point and obviously warmed to a young woman who must fit every American male’s fantasy about French girls.  Interviewed on French TV, shortly afterwards, her aunt Marine looked distinctly dowdy and ill-at-ease, saying only that Marion was in America to pursue her business ventures.

However fresh and attractive Marion may have looked to the CPAC audience however, the ideas she expressed were neither fresh nor particularly attractive. They seem to come straight out of what Sudhir Hazareesingh refers to in his book “How the French think”  (Penguin Random House, 2015) as “the demonology of French conservative nationalism”: the decay of the nation, an elite that is out of touch and the malevolent influence of Islam. That did not prevent her admirers in France from loving it. “Macron is the not the only one who can speak English”, commented one clearly adoring supporter in the comments section of the YouTube video of her presentation. Others made it clear that they wanted her back in politics and running the Front National. Facing a party conference in a week or so, Marine Le Pen is still fighting the headwinds of her lacklustre presidential campaign. She conceded magnanimously a couple of days later however that if Marion wanted to take on responsibilities within the Front National again, she would be welcome to do so.

All this being said, Marion is certainly more popular in her party than is the abrasive Laurent Wauquiez, new leader of the right-wing Républicains in his. Braving no serious opposition, he was predictably elected to the leadership a few weeks ago. Despite his impeccable educational background and considerable political experience though, Wauquiez is not everyone’s cup of tea. Centrist leaning party worthies like Alain Juppé, Xavier Bertrand or Valerie Pécresse have publicly criticised him and some have left the party altogether. No sooner had he been elected than he was embroiled in controversy when a speech he gave to business school students in Lyon was recorded, against his will we are assured, and widely broadcast on social media and the radio. The speech was full of derogatory and largely unfounded remarks not only about his political opponents like Emmanuel Macron but also, and more significantly, about his supposed political allies like Nicolas Sarkozy. Wauquiez subsequently apologised to Sarkozy and sought to justify his comments by claiming that he was only indulging in plain speaking, something he said that politicians should do more of.  Most observers heard only gratuitous insults.

All in all therefore, very little has happened in the past few months to advance the cause of the right-wing opposition in France. Marion Maréchal le Pen has ruled out returning to politics any time soon and Laurent Wauquiez is struggling to define a political line that does sound fresh and attractive, within a party that appears to be losing an increasing number of activists and sympathisers.  In a fund-raising mail shot that I received the other day, he refers to the values his party wishes to uphold, like work, merit and authority but also calls for a “reaction” to the government’s “passivity” in the face of a “massive” increase in crime and immigration. As his former colleague, Xavier Bertrand, pointed out perfidiously, if people didn’t know that such language had been cooked up by the Républicains, they could be forgiven for thinking that it was describing the policies of the Front National.

The biggest issue before the party therefore is how porous the border will turn out to be between its traditional voters and those of the Front National.  Or as Jean-Marie Le Pen has put it on many occasions, whether they will they vote for the real thing or only for the copy. Elections to the European Parliament next year and municipal elections in 2020 will be the first opportunities to find out. But to make a mark once again, Républicains leaders will have to work out quickly how to mount a credible opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s reforms, which, in their heart of hearts, they approve of and would have liked to undertake during Sarkozy’s presidency  - but didn’t. From his safe new vantage point as senior advisor to a venture capital firm, the once presidential hopeful, François Fillon, must be looking on wistfully as, one by one, the planks of what most people would consider a right-wing political platform are being torn up and put to use elsewhere.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

A new sense of reality ?

The French in general and their ruling classes in particular have often been criticised for being unrealistic in their outlook and expectations. Foreigners are usually the first to notice it. The Nobel Prize winning American economist, Paul Krugman, for instance, in an essay written in 1997 (“Unmitigated Gauls: Liberté, Egalité, Inanité” in “The Accidental Theorist”- 1998) writes, among other things, about “the refusal of French elites to face up to what looks like reality to the rest of us…. “ in connection with the economic policies he observed  at the time. But French commentators too can be sensitive to the same characteristic in their fellow countrymen. In his well-known book “Le Mal Français” (1977) Alain Peyrefitte reports a conversation with Doctor Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambarene in 1959. Schweitzer of course had both a German and a French background and was from Alsace, where the prevailing culture has always been more Germanic than French. He told Peyrefitte, in no uncertain terms, that he preferred to work with other nationalities than the French, because “they are not afraid to face reality – one of the prime conditions for changing it. Latin peoples”, he added dismissively, “prefer theory!”

There is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in such assertions. You don’t have to live in France for very long before you start to understand the familiar jibe about the French who will not be satisfied that something works in practice unless it also works in theory! After living in France for so long however, it is interesting to look back and consider the changes that have occurred in attitudes and culture over time. A number of recent developments give me reason to think that over a period of 30 years or so, there has been a gradual embrace of greater realism in many areas of national life. While this slow evolution has probably been going on in the background for many years, it has definitely become more visible since Emmanuel Macron’s election to the Presidency in May 2017 and the first eight months in office of Prime Minister Philippe and his government. Two examples that have been in the news recently are good illustrations of what I mean: the first concerns the long-running debate about access to university and the second attitudes to fiscal deficits and public debt.

Draft legislation on conditions of access to universities is currently completing its passage through parliament and may soon become law. For the first time ever, the legislation lays down a general rule that publicly run universities may require a particular academic profile and/or school record to approve admission to certain courses. What it amounts to is greater freedom for universities to select the candidates they think are most likely to succeed.  Now, the word “selection” has always been like a red rag to a bull to many prospective students and their representative organisations. It is often forgotten, for instance, that a government proposal to allow universities to select their students was one of the triggers for the events of May 1968. It sank without trace.  In 1986, a fresh attempt to introduce a selection process was made by the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Once again, it caused massive demonstrations by high-school and university students as well as the death of a demonstrator at the hands of riot police. The proposal was withdrawn and the minister responsible resigned. Over 30 years later, the subject is once again on the table but this time, thanks perhaps to some skilful political manoeuvring and the studious avoidance of the actual word “selection", opposition has so far been muted. Some student organisations have even said, initially at least, that they are not opposed to the new system.

If this new legislation is finally adopted as presented  - and subsequently implemented - it would indeed herald a big change in attitudes. After all, it would curtail a right that has been held dear for over a hundred years, which is that success at the high-school leaving exam, the baccalauréat, automatically gives access to free higher education in a state run university. When only 1% of an age group passed the famous exam, first year students were well equipped to meet the challenges of higher education. Now that 80% of an age group pass a baccalauréat of one kind or another, many would-be students are not so equipped, and yet they, their parents and their teachers still consider that they are entitled to claim a university place. The result is that universities are full of students who benefit from the advantages of being a student but never actually finish their course. According to statistics, only 27% of students complete their first-degree course in three years, 40% in four years. As I have written before (“Nice work if you can get it” – November 23, 2017) the French higher education system, however paradoxical it may sound, is in fact highly selective, with the best high-school pupils competing hard for places at engineering, technical, business or medical schools that select their students on the toughest possible criteria. To the extent that a leader writer in “Le Monde” could write recently (November 6, 2017) in a rare admission of reality, that:” …these reactions demonstrate a singular denial of reality that perpetuates one of the most astonishing examples of French hypocrisy ……in which almost everyone rejects the idea of selective entry to higher education…. and yet everyone knows that the whole system is based on the most rigorous selection.

The other area in which reality seems to have set in concerns the recurring deficit of the annual state budget. For the past 30 years or so, not one annual budget has been balanced when proposed and not one has been balanced, let alone in surplus, at the end of the fiscal year. As a result, public sector borrowing has ballooned and, after a big push as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, public debt now amounts to almost 100% of GDP. As late as the year 2000 however, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin yielded to political pressure from his left-wing parliamentary majority to devote a tax windfall  (“la cagnotte” as it was called, meaning literally “a pot of cash”) to cutting taxes and creating more public sector jobs, rather than using it to balance the budget and pay down debt. President Jacques Chirac, a centre-right President “co-habiting” with a left wing parliamentary majority at the time, could have exerted his authority to try and stop this extra public spending but he chose not to. Another recent editorial (January 31, 2018) in “Le Monde” summed up the outcome in this way: “disgruntled voters showed him (Jospin) no gratitude and the country as a whole lost out. Almost at the same time, Germany launched a programme of structural reform that enabled it, ten years later, to dominate Europe.” This year, as the editorial goes on to point out, there is once again a fiscal windfall due to higher than expected tax revenue at the end of last year – a trend that is likely to continue. But this time, the ministers responsible for public finances and the budget have stated very publicly that any fiscal surplus resulting from faster than expected economic growth will be devoted exclusively to paying down debt. The Minister of Finance, Bruno Le Maire, has even gone so far as to say that the state will sell some of its corporate holdings to raise more money and pay down more debt. Nobody, not even Jean-Luc Melenchon and his party, has made a serious case for spending more money, despite the fact that, to take just a few recent examples abundantly covered in the media, prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, hospital Accident and Emergency departments are bursting at the seams and social care for the elderly is in crisis.

The reasons for what appears to be a new realism among politicians and in public opinion are not entirely clear, but in both the issues referred to above, it is definitely clear that the status quo is no longer tenable. In both cases too, the single-minded and clearly stated ambition of Emmanuel Macron to “profoundly transform” his country have undoubtedly triggered a greater readiness to face up to reality and imitate other countries in the EU and elsewhere that have long since taken and implemented the tough decisions that France has so often shirked.

It is again too early to say whether this greater willingness to face reality will stay the course or whether fierce resistance will appear once again, as it has so often in the past, as voters reject the consequences of what they voted for at election time. If it doesn’t occur beforehand, the ultimate test will come with a proposed root-and-branch reform of the French pension system, with it myriad special schemes, different retirement ages and pension outcomes, that has now been postponed until 2019. Emmanuel Macron promised such a reform in his election campaign and many consider it an essential step towards seriously curbing public spending, as, unlike in many other countries, pensions in France are very largely the responsibility of the state. If the proposed reform culminates in a merger of all pension schemes, the harmonisation of retirement ages and pension outcomes (Macron promised that each €1 of contribution would give the same entitlement to every future pensioner, whether from the private or public sector) then it will indeed be possible to conclude that the French have adopted a new sense of reality. But it hasn’t happened yet and on past form, the road ahead will be extraordinarily difficult to navigate.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Looking outwards ....from Versailles

The day before the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 23rd, President Emmanuel Macron hosted a dinner in the Château de Versailles for 1400 international business leaders. Contrary to all his predecessors, he made his presentation in English. No journalists were present and the French employers’ federation was not even represented. "France is back" Macron declared to the best and the brightest of the business world, a phrase he repeated in his speech, half of which was in English too, in Davos two days later.

Many in France, in the media and the political opposition have been quick to pour scorn on Macron’s  active political and business diplomacy. The satirical weekly "Le Canard Enchainé" for example, titled its leading article that week: "It’s the reign of the Moi Soleil" (an allusion to Louis XIV, the “Roi Soleil”, who reigned over the court at Versailles at the time of its greatest splendour) assimilating Macron’s gesture to a public relations stunt, mere posturing, of which the French ruling classes have often and rightly been accused.  As I have written before in this blog, Macron is certainly not averse to draping himself in all the trappings of state, but in his case there is surely a more serious purpose behind it. It is worth recalling that just eight months into his five-year mandate, Macron has already hosted in Paris, among others, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recip Tayip Erdogan, been on a state visit to China and participated in a Franco-British summit.  Nor can he be accused of simply trying to butter up the world’s most powerful leaders. Making Donald Trump the guest of honour at last year’s Bastille Day parade did not prevent him from denouncing the U.S withdrawl from the Paris climate agreement and inviting American experts to pursue their research on climate change in France if they were prevented from doing so at home. Inviting Vladimir Putin to inaugurate an exhibition, in Versailles, to the glory of imperial Russia did not prevent him, during the ensuing press conference, and in front of a stony-faced Putin, from making it clear that he was under no illusion about the antics of Kremlin financed media during the French presidential campaign. Presenting a horse from the stable of the Republican Guard to Xi Jingping was an elegant way of expressing gratitude for the loan of a Chinese panda to a French zoo and threw an aura of bonhomie over the visit that culminated in the signature of some high-value contracts. And the master stroke of offering to lend the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain in the lead-up to the Franco-British summit undoubtedly facilitated the pledging by Prime Minister May of an extra 50 million Euros for border security on the French coast around Calais.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that Macron is not only skilled at choosing the gesture that will touch and impress his opposite numbers but that his charm offensive, alongside his domestic reform programme, is indeed directed towards putting France back at the core of Europe and the centre of the international stage. He is clearly helped by circumstances: The U.S is becoming more isolationist, Germany is temporarily weakened by its lack of government and the impending end of the Merkel era and the U.K is obsessed by Brexit alone. Henry Kissinger used to ask: "Who should I call when I want to talk to Europe?” The assumption was always that the leader of Germany should be on the other end of the line. If he were to ask the same question today, the answer might well be "Call Macron".

It helps of course that Macron, contrary to his predecessors, speaks creditable English and is not afraid to use it, ignoring the tut-tutting of those in France who consider that their Head of State should always speak French to international audiences. Listening to him answering questions from BBC’s Andrew Marr before the Franco-British summit, I concluded that he doesn’t always get it quite right: “My willingness” repeated several times, does not convey the ambition and determination of “ma volonté" and the oft repeated "for sure" could better be rendered by the more anglo-saxon "clearly" or "obviously". He also has an irritating tendency to drop his voice and slur his words at the end of sentences, something he does not do in his native tongue. But linguistic quibbling aside, his intention is lauded and his message comes across; practice will undoubtedly make perfect.

All that however is surely only half the story. The really big difference with Macron is a clear ambition to project the image of an outward-looking France, rather than one that focuses, as it tends to do too far too much, on its internal quarrels and divisions, a France that wishes, and considers itself able, to carve out a new role for itself in a globalised economy and an interdependent world. The intention has not gone unnoticed. Hardly a day goes by without a French business leader with international experience reporting that foreign partners are favourably impressed by the new image of France that Macron embodies - outward looking, engaging with the rest of the word and not afraid of becoming vigorously involved in its affairs. The French business radio and TV station “BFM Business” has long encapsulated the idea in a slogan to which Macron would undoubtedly subscribe: “France has everything (it needs) to succeed” ("La France a tout pour réusssir”). In his New Year’s address to the French people, the man himself expressed a similar if somewhat loftier sentiment: “France is capable of the exceptional” (“La France est capable de l’exceptionnel”).

Once again, Macron is true to an idea he put forward during his election campaign, that of an open France at the core of Europe and within a globalised world, striving to project its own values, while capitalising on its own assets  - and not forgetting its own interests! It is of course too early to tell whether achievement will match ambition, both domestically and internationally. The direction of travel is refreshingly new. The end of his first mandate in 2022 will be an appropriate juncture to look back and take stock.

No later than this week though, Macron will find his diplomatic skills put to the test when he travels to Corsica, long a thorn in the flesh of the centralised state, and where a newly emboldened “nationalist” movement is demanding greater autonomy, and in some quarters even, independence. As Spain has recently found, keeping one’s own country together can often be just as difficult, if not more so, than strutting one’s stuff on the world’s stage.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Remembering Paul Bocuse - by Rupert Swyer

The death of Paul Bocuse brings back memories of the night I went to dinner there with Martine, and her brother, in November 1973. I was feeling unwell, the beginnings of flu, and the Yom Kippur war had just broken out. But we'd booked, and this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Faithful to his legend, Bocuse himself was at the door with a jovial greeting for us. We opted for the 5-course menu at 120 francs, about 19 euros. It might be a bit more expensive now. The Saint Amour was the best Beaujolais I have ever tasted, full-bodied, long in the mouth, with a heady bouquet. Forget the vocabulary of modern wine-tasting: woodland fruits, wet dogs and grilled potatoes, or whatever.

I can't recall everything on the menu, but it did include écrevisses à la nage and a poularde de Bresse en demi-deuil, neither particularly nouvelle cuisine. My wife and brother-in-law are small eaters, so, helpful as always, I piled into their dishes too. The dessert trolley was a riot of puddings of every kind-- tarts, gateaux, fruits alone and in salads… again, not especially nouvelle cuisine. How to resist trying everything? Then came the mocha coffee, with a sort of creamy, smoky texture. Oh yes, and the accompanying chocolates!

As I started on my second cup of coffee, suddenly I began to feel cold, then hot, then cold again. I went to the gents and woke up about 15 minutes later, on the floor. I had fainted. The incipient flu, surely.

As we left, Bocuse was at the door again, looking concerned. “Was everything alright?” Definitely so, though the meal perhaps more so than I. Now I was fine, though. No food poisoning here. Not like some other so-called temples of haute cuisine.

Bocuse was renowned as a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, which I shan't attempt to characterize here, though it had already gained a reputation for Lilliputian portions and outlandish marriages of ingredients. For
the high priests of nouvelle cuisine, dining was less a comfort for the stomach than an exercise in aesthetics and philosophy. We were supposed to become gastrosophes, à la Charles Fourier.

Rumour had it that top nouvelle cuisine chefs were repairing to Chez Allard, on the rue Saint-André- des-Arts in Paris, for a "proper" meal and the warmth of a traditional restaurant.

In 1973, though, the atmosphere chez Bocuse was relaxed and friendly, and the servings abundant.

I was describing the meal at a dinner party in Paris a few weeks later.William Christie, recently arrived in Paris, was there too. He was making a living accompanying master classes for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I think. In a thick American accent he asked me: "Est-ce que tu parles aussi bien du sexe que de la bouffe?" "To intimates only", I replied, evasively.

We didn't know then, but the connection between food and sex was especially apposite in the case of Bocuse. He was a voluptuary in the great French tradition: he loved food and women, like a well-upholstered man in a Picasso engraving, reclining in the arms of a sensual female. Only in his case we are told he was living with three women, not to mention other lovers.

If that isn't enough to drive red-blooded men into the kitchen, I don't know what is.

Rupert Swyer   rupertswyer@gmail.com

Monday, 15 January 2018

Lafayette nous voilà!

One of the staples of transatlantic relations is the enduring friendship between France and the United States of America. In a TV interview in November, President Macron, as a preface to his comments on President Trump’s attitude towards global warming and Iran, declared: “the Americans are our allies. We helped the American people to win independence and they helped us every time our security was threatened”.  He was referring of course, among other things, to the role of Count Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette alongside George Washington during the American war of independence and the famous words attributed to General Pershing  (but probably uttered by his aide-de-camp) at Lafayette’s grave after landing in France at the head his troops in 1917: “Lafayette nous voila!" In his New year’s address to the French people, Macron even went so far as to echo John F. Kennedy’s words at his inaugural address in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” In the U.S, countless streets, towns and cities are named after Lafayette and many statues have been erected to honour his memory. There are no less than three in New York, one in Union Square Park, sculpted by Statue of Liberty sculptor, Bartholdi, one in Lafayette Park, Harlem and one on an impressive frieze along the wall of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, commissioned by Henry Harteau, a Brooklyn citizen of French ancestry, who had these words inscribed on it: … “an enduring tribute to one who as friend and companion of the immortal Washington fought to establish in our country those vital principles of liberty and human brotherhood which he afterward labored to establish in his own.”

Relations between the two countries have not always been as warm as such tributes would suggest. A book published in 2004, written by an American journalist, John J. Miller and a historian, Mark Molesky (“Our oldest enemy”- “a history of America’s disastrous relationship with France”) romps through the history of bilateral relations with a distinctly jaundiced eye.  The book’s provocative title is only a prelude to the blackening of France’s reputation in the body of the text. France is accused at many junctures in history of deviousness, crude anti-Americanism and frequent attempts to thwart American, and by extension, the world’s interests, in pursuit of its own devious ends. From France's attempts to establish itself in the New World by conspiring with Indian tribes to massacre English settlers, to Napoleon Bonaparte’s designs on Louisiana, Napoleon 3rd’s support for the Confederacy during the Civil War and his failed attempts to install a puppet regime in Mexico, the thwarting by Clemenceau of Woodrow Wilson’s urge to  “make the world safe for democracy” by working for a more balanced version of the Versailles Treaty than the one that was eventually imposed on Germany in 1919, the obstructionism and “gallic pomposity” of Gaulle, after World War 2, the condescending arrogance of  the French cultural elite towards American popular culture in the 1950s and 60,  and finally  the "duplicitous" behaviour of Jacques Chirac in expressing unending sympathy for America  after 9/11 but refusing to take part in President Bush’s invasion of Irak. Published in 2004, the book was of course intended to surf on the wave of anti-French sentiment  following France’s refusal to participate in the "war on terror”, and it is therefore understandable that the authors did their best to cast the French in the worst possible light.  However, even George Washington, as recorded in the book, noted that: “…it is a maxim founded in the universal experience of mankind that no nation can be trusted further than it is bound by its interests”. The authors go to great lengths to blame the French for thwarting American interests but, unsurprisingly, make little attempt to explain or justify them. Little matter, the book makes entertaining reading!

Even these authors, however, warm to Lafayette. During America’s struggle for independence, they write, “there was at least one Frenchman however, whose concern for America seemed motivated by something other than raw self-interest”, even if they add, a couple of pages later, that, "in truth it is not altogether clear how well Lafayette actually understood the principles he was fighting for ”, and by extension therefore that, “for more than two centuries, whenever tensions arose between the United States and France, the French rarely missed an opportunity to invoke the memory of Lafayette as a way of shielding their true motives”.

Indeed, Lafayette might not have expressed the principles he was fighting for at the time of the American Revolution in the way historians have done since, but there is no doubting the sincerity of his convictions. And in the ultra turbulent times of the French revolution, some 20 years later, it was certainly not easy to “establish those principles of liberty and human brotherhood”, in the words of Harteau’s tribute. By all accounts, Lafayette was a moderate at a time of extremists, a bringer of order at a time of anarchy, in favour of establishing a constitutional monarchy in the aftermath of a monarch’s bloody execution. As the revolution spiralled out of control, he only saved his head by being outside the country, having been taken prisoner by the Austrians during the revolutionary wars. And while his wife, from the de Noailles aristocratic family, was able to escape from revolutionary Paris and join her husband, her sister, mother and grandmother all fell victim to the reign of terror, during which more than 1300 people were executed on the same guillotine in June and July of 1794.  During the post revolutionary period, Lafayette's relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte was strained, to say the least, and he spent the remaining years of his life as a moderate member of the Chamber of Deputies, playing a pivotal role in the mini Revolution of July 1830 when the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe was installed on the throne.

Lafayette’s last resting place, since his death in 1834, is the Picpus cemetery in Paris. I found it a strange place in many ways when I visited it recently, a small haven of peace and quiet, next to a noisy building site for a new university and across the road  from a large car dealership. The small number of elaborate tombs holding the remains of some of France’s most aristocratic families stand just yards away from three mass graves in which the bodies of many of those executed during the reign of terror were hastily and secretly buried in land that was consecrated only years later. Lafayette’s grave is easily recognisable in the far corner, with inscriptions in French and English and decorated with an American flag. It also holds American soil, brought back for this very purpose by Lafayette himself from his triumphant tour of America in 1824. Every year on July 4th, an American delegation runs up a fresh flag over the grave of its honorary citizen and lays a wreath. As to the ideals of liberty and human brotherhood, the universalist message of both France and the United States, they continue to resonate and inspire throughout the world, from China to Russia, from Iran to Tunisia, to name just a few of its more recent manifestations.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Authority is back!

The month of May 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the “events”, as they are still euphemistically called in France, of May 1968.  There has been some talk in the media about whether the anniversary should be celebrated and if so how. Especially as most people old enough to remember them have images of disruption and chaos uppermost in their minds. The mini revolution culminated in what some consider a near coup d’état, thwarted only by the failure of the student and workers’ movements to find common ground and the reluctance of political leaders like François Mitterrand or the leadership of the powerful (at the time) French communist party to exploit the situation, overthrow de Gaulle and form a new government. After some initial hesitation, President de Gaulle eventually put up a spirited defence of the regime he had founded, dissolved parliament and won a resounding victory in the subsequent elections. The political crisis at least was over by the end of June.

It can be argued though that the effects of May 1968 are still being felt in France today. It was after all a revolt against authority that had been brewing for some time, similar to revolts in other western democracies during the same period. A revolt against the authority of parents, teachers, bosses, the church, political leaders and the powers that be in general. One of its best known slogans was: “it shall be forbidden to forbid” (“il est interdit d’interdire”) Anybody like myself who brought up children in France in the 1970s and 80s knows only too well that notions of authority were profoundly different after May 1968 than in the 1950s and early 60s. For better or for worse, previously imposed, and often grudgingly accepted, authority gave way to widespread liberalisation in almost every area of society, as the perceived balance of individual rights and obligations underwent a radical shift. And so it has been ever since, so deeply ingrained in the prevalent culture that nobody seems to notice any more. 50 years on however, and particularly since the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, there are signs that the pendulum may be swinging back. Three examples come to mind.

The first concerns reactions to the recently announced ban on the use of mobile phones on the premises of primary and secondary schools from September 2018. Interviewed on TV, a teachers union leader, clearly ill at ease with the proposed measure, claimed that it would be difficult to enforce, referring to the need to “search pupils” or require them to lock up their phones in individual custom-built lockers. In a discussion about this over the Christmas turkey, one of my daughters-in-law, born in 1977, the same year as Emmanuel Macron, and certainly no sympathiser of the Front National, simply said this: “why can’t schools just tell pupils that the use of mobile phones on school premises is forbidden and if they are caught using one it will be confiscated? That’s what they do in privately run schools and I know for a fact that it works!” My conclusion from this brief exchange was that at least one 40 year-old parent today is not convinced that forbidding should be forbidden, nor that authority cannot and should not be exerted, and respected, when it serves a specific purpose.

The second example concerns the on-going national debate about the reform of unemployment allowances and vocational training. Under the current system, a job seeker is required to accept a job offer or a training opportunity if his or her employment counsellor judges it reasonable. After two refusals, the job seeker can be struck off the unemployment register for two to six months. In addition, their allowances can be cut but this decision can only be taken by a prefect, the direct representative of the state. The sanction is hardly ever applied and therefore exists largely on paper only.  As part of the reform being mooted by the government, the employment agency will be empowered to take that decision itself. Unions and left-wing politicians have protested loudly with hard-hitting sound bites like: “the government should be tackling unemployment and not the unemployed”. In reality, fewer than 15% of job seekers would be liable for this kind of sanction but the state has clearly been reluctant, so far at least, to exert its own authority and apply the existing law.

The third concerns the vexed, emotionally charged and infinitely more complex issue of immigration and how to deal with the mass of migrants who end up in France and apply for asylum here. France of course has a long and generous tradition of welcoming and integrating foreigners, but the squalid and well publicised encampments in Calais or under the bridges of overhead metro lines in different parts of Paris suggest, at the very least, that the welcoming tradition is being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. Again, the law is clear: once an asylum request has been rejected, disappointed claimants should be returned either to their home country or to the first EU country in which they landed. But again, the measure is hardly ever applied. The vast majority of migrants whose asylum claim has been rejected manage to stay on as illegals, making the situation of overcrowding even worse and putting increased pressure on the authorities and the volunteer organisations that do their level best to alleviate their plight.

Once again it is the state that is reluctant to apply the full force of the law and use the police to deport those who have been told they can no longer stay. President Macron announced recently that he would tighten up regulations on migrants who are not allowed, after due process, to stay in France. Predictably, political opponents on the left have protested that France’s welcoming tradition is being trodden underfoot and that that the police have no right to enter premises housing immigrants in order to identify and arrest illegals. On the far right of the political spectrum, the Front National has been saying, with a smirk of satisfaction, that Macron is only about to do what it has been advocating for many years.

In any democratic society of course there must be public debate, and in France there always is - and it is always heated - about the rights and obligations of the unemployed or whether economic migrants should enjoy the same status as refugees from war zones, on what criteria that distinction should be made and what should be done about those who fall on the wrong side of the dividing line. That being said, once the debate has run its course and legislation has been passed, a government that does not apply it loses credibility and is rightly accused of doing nothing – a charge that can be levelled at many governments since May 1968. During Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, for example, a number of brutal murders were committed by convicted criminals who had been released on parole or whose prison sentences had been reduced.  At Sarkozy’s instigation, and under pressure from public opinion, parliament voted no less than six new laws in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of such events.  The widely held view is that they have made precious little difference to actual sentencing and parole practises, simply because they are not applied.

By contrast, President Macron has gone on record more than once as saying: “I will do what I have said I will do”. During his presidential campaign he did indeed say that the unemployed should be held to greater account in exchange for fairly generous allowances and more recently that he will tighten up the immigration laws. Looking back over his first few months in office, he has certainly not been afraid to assert his authority. One remembers, for example, his very public dressing down of the army’s Chief of Staff before the summer holidays (See my post: “Hail to the Chief!” - July 16).

Perhaps he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of May 1968 by reminding the French, in word and deed, that the authority of the state is being restored and that he will continue to set an example at the very top. A Head of State who was born nearly ten years after “the events”, may finally be consigning their legacy to history!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Cleared for take-off?

Last week, a three-man committee of mediators submitted a report to the French Prime Minister on the pros and cons of going ahead with a project to build an entirely new international airport not far from the city of Nantes in the West of France, around the small farming village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The current Nantes airport is located at the very edge of the city, has just one runway and is near saturation.  As an extension would be complicated and as many city dwellers suffer a high level of aircraft noise and pollution, not to speak of the danger of an aircraft accident over the city, it seemed logical, given the almost empty countryside just a few dozen mile away, to design and build a green field airport there and eventually close the city airport altogether.

Logical perhaps, but even in a country that sets very high store by logic, the project has been controversial from the outset. It was first mooted 50 years ago when economic and traffic projections concluded that the existing Nantes airport would have to be replaced or extended sooner or later. Since then a “deferred development area” (Zone d’aménagement différé), known by the acronym of “ZAD,” has been gradually cleared of its inhabitants and farms. Some farmers have accepted an expropriation package and gone quietly, others have not. And that is where the problem lies. As happens with many such projects that would change the face of the surrounding area for ever, the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, has become a focus for demonstrations and protests by green activists, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protesters from all over France and even other parts of Europe. An estimated 200 to 300 protestors have set up camps in the area and refuse be dislodged, renaming the area a “zone à defendre” and calling themselves “ZADists”. After a lengthy public enquiry, a whole host of legal challenges on environmental grounds, an aborted attempt to evacuate the protestors last year, a local referendum won by those in favour of the new airport by a majority of 55%, the reluctance of several governments to decide one way or another, President Macron has finally let it be know that a decision will be taken by the end of January 2018.

Although France is a large country with vast, sparsely populated areas, the country’s deeply entrenched attachment to rural values and small farming sits uneasily with large infrastructure projects in the middle of green pastures. Even more so if such projects are decided, as they invariably are, by central government in distant Paris. This is particularly true in Brittany, of which the Loire Atlantique department, the home of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, is historically a part and which has a long history of rebellion against the crown, the revolution and the centralised state. Back in the 1970s for instance, a project to build a nuclear power station in Plogoff, near one of Brittany’s most spectacular coastal beauty spots, was violently contested by protestors of all persuasions until the newly elected President Mitterrand decided to abandon it in 1981. More recently a national project to introduce tolls for heavy lorries using the country’s main roads and motorways was derailed in Brittany by an ad hoc coalition of protestors wearing red Phrygian bonnets, reminiscent of the reign of terror in 1794. (see my post: ”Punitive ecology”  - June 11). It is worth noting in passing that Brittany has never allowed any toll motorway on its territory either and gets by with two-lane dual carriageways linking its large towns.

Luckily, neither of the two protests referred to above led to any fatalities, unlike two other popular protests in other parts of France, one against the building of a fast breeder nuclear reactor in central France in 1977, during which one protestor was killed by a police stun grenade (since outlawed as a means of riot control) and another, more recently, in the South West against the construction of a dam over a river, in which a green activist also lost his life, again as the result of a police charge.

The fear of loss of life among protestors and the police is clearly the main factor that has held back successive governments from trying to evacuate the area around Notre-Dame-des-Landes. French riot police are not known for their pussy-footedness and determined protestors, armed with sharpened wooden stakes, various projectiles and shielded behind makeshift barricades are no pushover. Reading between the lines, the mediators’ report offers the government a face-saving climb down by suggesting that an extension of the current Nantes airport, whatever its other drawbacks, would cost less than building the new airport and all the infrastructure serving it. In addition, having just last week hosted a climate summit and clearly wishing to give himself a leading role in the campaign to fight global warming, the “make-our-planet-great-again” President Macron would find it very awkward to give the go-ahead to an environmentally destructive project that could severely damage his image as a climate saviour. Add to that the well-known views of his “Minister of Ecological Transition” Nicolas Hulot and the revelation by former minister and green party leader, Cécile Duflot, that President Hollande himself was no fan of the new airport, whatever he might have said in public, and the balance seems to be tipping in favour of abandoning the project altogether.

If he does go for that solution however, Macron will probably find it easier to placate the local and national politicians who have always been in favour of the project, as well as find the money to pay the construction companies for breach of contract, than oversee an orderly evacuation and dispersal of the protestors. After all, pitched battles with riot police in muddy fields and narrow country roads would not look good on the evening news and would certainly do no good for the image of France in the world, let alone that of its President.  Whether events come to a head in that way, especially if the protestors have won their fight to kill the project, remains to be seen, but France may be in for a hotter winter than usual  -  and not just because of global warming!