A French lesson in militancy: When farmers and lorry drivers put up barricades it is because tradition tells them that is how to win. And tradition still rules France, explains Julian Nundy

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The Independent Online
Without citizens' band radios and faxes, France would not be where it is today. These handy tools of modern communications have proved a boon to the French malcontent. Given a widespread belief that there is no meaningful dialogue with the authorities, lateral communication, from village to village or roadblock to roadblock, has become the key. Faxes and CBs enable the new-style militants to run the 'co- ordinations' that are elbowing the traditional trade unions aside.

So it was logical that riot police, preparing to disperse a roadblock of 150 lorries near Lille yesterday, first ensured all nearby telephone lines were cut and CB frequencies jammed. While the lorry drivers who have paralysed France for the past week have been talking among themselves by CB and telephone, the farmers' Rural Co-ordination, which tried to blockade Paris two weeks ago in protest against European Community farm reform, favours faxes to plan strategy, making telephone-monitoring by police almost impossible.

Modern communications devices, however, are only props in what Le Monde described yesterday as France's 'social Balkanisation'. There is a feeling of unease in a country which, if it ever bothers to look at its neighbours, should see many reasons to be satisfied with its lot.

For Le Monde, 'when the state is tired, the economy depressed, unemployment inexorable, the grand design undefinable and the construction of Europe a challenge which disturbs more than it mobilises, it's a time for each for himself.'

Such statements apply to most of Europe. Perhaps the difference is that in France, militancy almost always brings results.

Farmers' violence kept the subsidies flowing for 40 years, with the government backing EC policies that horrified France's partners. And students only have to take to the streets for education reform to be postponed. Faced with drop-out rates of 50 per cent in French universities, the government recently tried to introduce a measure of selection to save money and bruised egos. A short campaign of demonstrations - accompanied by a thug element (disavowed by the students' unions) which broke windows and attacked parked cars - ensured the measure was shelved.

It is not just the current Socialist government that caves in. In 1986, under the Gaullist Jacques Chirac, another education reform programe was put on ice after violent demonstrations.

So it was almost normal for the lorry drivers to imagine that a show of strength would earn the new driving licence law introducing cumulative penalties (as in Britain) for successive offences, its place in the dustbin of history. As the roadblocks of the past week hurt France more and more, politicians outside the government suggested that the easiest solution might be just to delay or suspend the reform. This would, after all, have been in keeping with tradition.

An added complication is that the trade unions are being supplanted by grass-roots activists forming their own movements. When the French government opened talks with lorry drivers' union officials last week, it was dealing with men who represented only a fraction of those on the barricades.

The first group to start a 'co-ordination', enveloping members of various unions and non-union workers, was France's nurses. But, without publicly elected officials, representatives were often disavowed when they returned from negotiations at the Health ministry, making meaningful talks extremely difficult.

The farmers founded their 'co-ordination' at the end of last year. With five official agricultural unions, from the far left to the far right, plus many peasants choosing to remain outside them, Rural Co-ordination claims an across-the-board sprinkling of France's farmers. So far, the government has refused to acknowledge the existence of Rural Co-ordination, which has rapidly become the most radical of the farmers' movements.

Despite appearances, the French have not traditionally been highly unionised. Because of each union's political leanings, many potential members see them as alien or sold on a political ideal which has little to do with everyday problems.

Among farmers, for example, a frequent complaint is that the largest peasants' union, the National Federation of Farmers' Trade Unions, or FNSEA, is too close to authority. One of its leaders, Francois Guillaume, hung up his union hat in 1986 to become Jacques Chirac's Agriculture minister. The FNSEA has been foremost in recent days in calling on farmers not to back lorry drivers' protests with their own, a call often ignored.

As Le Monde put it, government-union talks on ending the drivers conflict have brought together two 'impotent' interlocutors. Indeed, the image of government weakness is applicable to the political structure as a whole.

Since 1988, the Socialist government has ruled without a majority in the National Assembly. This has meant that successive laws have been passed by use of Article 49-3 of the constitution. By this procedure, the government makes the law the subject of a confidence motion.

Once the confidence motion is passed, so is the law. And it is done with a minimum of debate, usually limited to a fixed time of 10 minutes for the leader of the each parliamentary group, which in turn is most often used to attack or defend the government of the day, not to deal with the specific issues.

The upshot is that legislation is passed without any real discussion. The amendments and argument that would be routine elsewhere are almost unheard of in the modern French parliament.

Such is the contrast between the French and British systems that last November, in the run-up to the Maastricht EC summit, the French debate was concluded in less than a day, while television reports showed, with commentators expressing obvious alarm, the vituperative debate in the House of Commons. Now, belatedly, the French debate on the Maastricht treaty is in full swing, but on the hustings and in television studios, as the electorate is called on to vote on ratification in a referendum in 12 weeks' time.

The vision of a parliament - tainted with tales of politicians' corruption - hastily dispensing legislation is not one to inspire confidence. There is therefore little incentive to lobby its members. And hardly anybody tries.

Alain Touraine, a prominent sociologist, said yesterday that France has suffered 'for 30 years from a chronic illness: the inability to negotiate or to manage change'. The government's error was not to have introduced a law that would reduce road deaths but to have done it without considering the effects on the lives of the main road-users, often forced by punishing schedules to break speed limits and work inhuman hours.

Society, he said, has become so consumer-oriented that problems are viewed according to 'consumerist criteria: health, safety, the environment. To the point that everything is done now without reference to the problems of production.'

Serge July, the editor of Liberation, dismissed talk that the new law had not been sufficiently explained. The drivers, he said, 'not only don't read newspapers and don't watch television, but they really don't understand why suddenly the government wants to stop them breaking the highway code, as has been the custom in France for years.'

Yesterday's knights of the road, Mr July said, had turned into 'nomads in the process of proletarisation' caught in a vice between the law and profit targets. The 'macadam revolt', he said, was 'the daughter of ultra-liberalism'.

(Photograph omitted)