Montpellier Stories

No jail is big enough to hold the local hero who trashed McDonald's Mary Dejevsky discovers - at least, not until after the elections
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The Independent Online

Don't, whatever you do, speak of José Bové with anything other than respect around these parts. He is a hero, and if you need to be told why, you haven't been down to your local bar often enough.

Don't, whatever you do, speak of José Bové with anything other than respect around these parts. He is a hero, and if you need to be told why, you haven't been down to your local bar often enough.

Bové is the peasant leader turned anti-globaliser who took the credit for destroying the McDonald's in the southern town of Millau three summers ago. His case has been dragging through the courts ever since – not because there is any doubt about his culpability: anyone even remotely connected with the feat (sorry, crime) positively boasts about it. But because no one in authority wants to be responsible for sending him to prison, especially with elections so close.

The case finally reached the regional appeal court here last week, just days before France goes to vote. With dark warnings of mass demonstrations and more slashings and burnings to come, the judge had his work cut out. But he proved himself equal to the task: he upheld the verdict and the sentence (three months in prison), but passed the problem of what to do about it back to the magistrates. Reluctantly calling them– selves into session the next day, they decided that, indeed, the sentence should stand, but that it should not start until after the second round of the election – more than two weeks away – because they did not want to risk "polluting the political debate".

Whether Bové ever sees the inside of a prison cell for longer than the few days he has already served, though, is another matter. Every driver in the land knows that a new president has the power of amnesty. That's why they are ignoring speed limits and not paying their parking tickets. What better way for the new President – be it Jacques Chirac or Lionel Jospin – to cement his popularity than keep Bové out of prison?

The man himself, meanwhile, was showing characteristic disdain for the system. Passing through Montpellier airport on his way back from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank (where he had been pursuing his fledgling career as a global activist), he made clear that he would be only too delighted to go to prison. There's someone who knows the publicity value of victimhood.

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The hinterland of Montpellier is where the mountains of the Cevennes give way to the Mediterranean plain. Wine-growing villages, fast being colonised by Parisians, the British and the Dutch, alternate with depressed former mill towns trying to eke a new living from tourism. It was in one such that a clutch of earnest individuals in their twenties and thirties gathered one evening last week for a "discussion" on the policies of the leading Trotskyite candidate for the presidency, Arlette Laguiller. A lengthy reading of said lady's political programme (abridged) was followed by contributions from the floor, which turned into mini-diatribes about the state of France's public services ...

Now, from Britain, you would think that France offers a model of how public services ought to function. But you have not listened to Pierre, who works at the local Post Office. He says that job cuts are being disguised as unfilled posts, despite rampant unemployment: no wonder letters take so long to reach you. Basic lack of common sense and investment, he says, mean that the post is just dumped on the square outside the post office, sun, rain or snow, for sorting and forwarding to smaller villages.

Why on earth can't the powers that be provide some sort of canopy to stop the letters getting dirty and the paper dissolving, he asks. And don't even mention parcels: threatened deregulation is the beginning of the end of the French postal service, he says, and he blames Brussels.

Whoops – this is where he is lamentably off-message, according to the Trotskyites. Those responsible for poor working conditions, low pay, job cuts etc are capitalist bosses "right here in Montpellier, Toulouse and Paris". Local Trots are clearly not quite ready for world revolution: they are still trying to convince French workers to unite.