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

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)

Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home