Liberty, Equality, Anarchy: French politicians aren't trusted. Julian Nundy on why drivers and farmers have paralysed their country

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The Independent Online
WILL JULY 1992 go into the history of France as another May 1968? A year ago, the idea of a repeat of les evenements would have seemed absurd. But as filling stations were running dry yesterday for the first time in 24 years, the French were making serious comparisons with the days when students took to the streets of Paris and the country was gripped by a general strike.

Away from the main roads, however, this does not feel like a country in crisis. It has one of the best living standards in Europe, and it shows. Successive governments have managed a remarkable synthesis of ancient and modern, giving the country an efficient, high-speed rail network, good roads and airports, while preserving traditions backed by good wines and good food.

The latest foreign trade figures were excellent, the franc is strong, the inflation rate only 3.1 per cent. France has suffered from the recession much less than its neighbours. Nothing in recent French life compares with the trauma of Britain's mortgage repossessions, for example. Only the unemployment rate, at 10.1 per cent of the working population, clouds the picture.

'France is doing much better than we think,' says Raymond Barre, the former centrist prime minister. But, he adds, the French people are intellectuals. 'Intellectuals are always looking for what is wrong.'

As several French commentators have observed in recent months, parallels can be drawn between the situation now and that of 1968. The most obvious is the length of time that Francois Mitterrand has been in office. He was first elected in 1981. In 1968, De Gaulle had been in power for 10 years.

Before 1968, a famous commentary in Le Monde was headed 'France is bored'. Yesterday, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of the conservative Le Figaro, wrote that the country was suffering from 'ras-le-bol', a kind of 'we've had enough' phrase.

Enough of what?

THE immediate cause of the blockaded roads is a somewhat petty debate about accruing traffic violations. The truck-drivers oppose the new 'points' system for driving licences, similar to the British endorsements. Under the new regulations, offences will accumulate penalties and lead to suspensions. Each traffic offence used to be dealt with on its own merits, without systematic reference to previous transgressions. Similar schemes to the one introduced by the French government have been in force elsewhere for decades. But the government, ever anxious not to offend the powerful motorists' lobby, has waited until now. With 10,000 road deaths a year, France has one of Europe's worst records.

Few people who have driven much on French roads can have failed to notice the often cut- throat behaviour of many road- users. They may be skilful, but French drivers are not inclined to courtesy or compromise.

One problem is that the police often appear reluctant to enforce the law, until an accident occurs. Outside La Sante prison in Paris, police watching the jail's walls used to stand near a busy crossroads. While they had the authority to stop motorists and issue tickets, few would do so. Road- hogs in the district became used to the idea that they could drive through a red light with impunity.

Often motorists will bully the police, pulling rank, citing their connections or position in society. A French journalist recounted how, stopped by the Paris police for drunken driving, he was allowed to drive on after showing his press card.

The government, backed by horrifying statistics, gave notice of the new licence system three years ago, and in recent weeks it has broadcast frequent radio commercials explaining the logic.

The truck drivers argue that, as professionals on the road all day, they will be more vulnerable than other motorists. They admit freely to breaking speed limits because of delivery time constraints.

France has a League Against Road Violence and Francine Cicurel, its president, wrote last week: 'The licence points are points for life given to us all. Who wants to hear on the telephone that their two children are lying inanimate by the side of the road? Who wants to bury a 22-year-old son who had left on holiday with his girlfriend?' Professional drivers, she argued, were by definition not amateurs, and 'know better than others how to respect the rules'.

Yet public opinion is ambivalent. An opinion poll published in the popular Le Parisien daily newspaper on Friday showed that 49 per cent approved of the new licence laws, with 47 per cent against. On the other hand, 60 per cent thought the truck drivers were right to demonstrate, with only 38 per cent against. It was as though those questioned thought that, if people were prepared to turn out and cause such big disruptions, they must be right.

It is not just the lorry drivers who have been disrupting French traffic. The farmers have been out in force, too; and their case is stronger, in that they at least face a genuine threat to their livelihoods. Their current unrest was prompted by reform of the EC's Common Agricultural Policy. The peasants fear virtual extinction as a class; they say their numbers will be halved if the system changes. Yet they have been kept artificially afloat for 30 years by EC subsidy systems, which their government fought to maintain. It had to stop one day, just as something had to be done about bad French driving.

LAST MONTH in the south- western departement of Gers, a farmer who had joined the militant Rural Co-ordination, which tried unsuccessfully to blockade Paris two weeks ago, lamented a painful encounter on a roadblock with British tourists. 'They were very hard,' Philippe Cockenpot, the farmer, said. 'They said, 'You are always complaining.' '

However, these are not Barre's complaining intellectuals. The student revolt of May 1968 was the work of intellectuals, but all that remains of those gurus' revolutionary spirit is the open- necked shirt. Now the problem is coming from elsewhere, from the peasantry and the working class. And one of the problems is that the authority of and support for the traditional trade unions has declined. The proportion of the workforce that is unionised is the lowest in Europe, lower even than in the United States; the unions that do exist are fragmented and, often, based on political affiliation rather than on occupational or industrial groups. This explains why conventional strikes are relatively rare in France and why protest often takes the form of direct action, described by politicians such as Raymond Barre as 'inadmissible', regarded by other nations as anarchy, but greeted by most French people with a resigned shrug.

Movements such as those of the farmers, the truckers or, before them, the nurses are run by co-ordinations, loose professional coalitions that cross the union lines, and reach into the ranks of non-union colleagues. This means, as in the truck drivers' dispute this past week, that there is no obvious negotiator: no one who can return from talks with the government and command loyalty among the militants. Trade union leaders represent hardly anyone these days.

Likewise, the government is losing authority, but no alternative is emerging among the mainstream political parties. While opinion polls show deep dissatisfaction with the Socialist government, they also show a dismissive cynicism for the conservative opposition. Although marginal parties have picked up some of the slack, there is no real alternative. The chances are that, in general elections next month, the French will dismiss a government they are tired of in favour of one for which they have equal contempt.

It is clear that France is suffering from a malaise of worrying proportions. Even if the current crises are defused, they will probably return in another form in a few months' time, and eventually something has will have to give.

'People at every level are fed up with the Mitterrand government,' says Albert Heulle, patron of the Hotel Le Vaubad at Saint Omer, near Calais. 'He has deceived us, he has lied to us, he has promised things he couldn't deliver. He is not a good head of the family. This is just one more complaint. The lorry drivers are causing everyone a lot of irritation, but it has to be done.'

But defining the causes of the malaise is hard. Some commentators blame the president's 'monarchical' style; others suggest that people are bored with political parties whose leaders have hardly changed in 20 years. Charges of corruption laid last week against one of the main contenders to be the next prime minister, Francois Leotard, only reinforced a popular view that France's politicians are a dishonest crowd. More generally, there is a sense of unease, a feeling, perhaps, that the years of plenty are drawing to a close.

Since Mr Mitterrand's re-election in 1988, a minority government has ruled virtually by decree. By successive no-confidence motions during which the opposition has never won a majority, usually because of Communist refusals to vote with the right, it has forced legislation through with a minimum of debate.

One conservative deputy complained last month that hardly any new laws came from private members; most come from the administration. 'Our parliamentary system has broken down,' according to Jacques Laigneau, president of Rural Co-ordination. 'You get what you want by attracting the media's attention.'

In yesterday's Le Figaro, Giesbert, himself of the 1968 generation, asked: 'Where is the state? That is the question that the French should be asking as the country is struck by paralysis.'

The pressure on the French government to compromise and defuse its social disputes is enormous; and if the government were to follow recent tradition, in dealing with the lorry drivers and the peasants, it would simply revoke its decisions and reach into its pocket for more subsidies. This is what Giesbert describes as the government's talent for 'retreating faster than its shadow'.

The dissatisfaction of the farmers and drivers has been provoked by decisions which should, logically, have been taken years ago. From the other side of the Channel, French governments are often viewed as authoritarian, while protest demonstrations are seen as blows for liberty and human rights. The truth is that the present French government has backed down too often; over university reforms after street demonstrations earlier this year, for example. That is why the farmers and drivers expect their present action to work.

ALONG THE secondary roads that motorists are now obliged to use, a number of 'No to Europe' posters are popping up in the fields. The campaign for the referendum on the Maastricht treaty, due on 20 September, has begun. The result is not a foregone conclusion, and while most mainstream politicians are campaigning for a 'yes', France has a tradition of saying 'no' at the most crucial moments.

Mr Mitterrand has tried to divorce the Maastricht issue from party politics. But, if discontent continues, and blocked roads during the holiday season spread it nationwide, the voters could deal a blow to the whole political class. And even if Maastricht is approved, the politicians will then be plunged into six months of campaigning, probably leading to the election of a conservative government in March.

Unless, as seems very unlikely, Mr Mitterrand decides to step down, this will produce another government of 'cohabitation', like that run by the Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, from 1986 to 1988 under a Socialist presidency. It will herald a period of petty squabbles and few real decisions.

Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the Resistance hero who, as prime minister under President Georges Pompidou, tried to impose his vision of 'a new society' after 1968, once said that he believed the French were bored by continuity, that they liked crisis; and that changes to society came about only after a traumatic shock.

President Mitterand, according to a current story, told a newly-appointed diplomat: 'As long as you know how to say 'no', that's all you need.' The problem now is that saying 'no' is not just the prerogative of the state. The riddle is to find the question to which the French will answer 'yes'.

Additional reporting by Michael Durham.

(Photograph omitted)