Agnès Poirier: Protest and survive

Britons are taking to the streets to vent their anger, over Heathrow expansion, the floods, or war in Iraq. Nothing could more gladden the French demonstrator's heart

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What a rare, pleasant and healthy sight: angry British citizens protesting. At Heathrow against a third runway, at Parliament Square against the war in Iraq (and against the police trying to dislodge them as a health hazard) and in Gloucestershire against the carelessness of public authorities who intend on carrying building homes on flood plains.

In my 10 years as a French woman living in Britain, I have often wondered what could really make the British angry. Nothing it seemed: not poor public services, nor Blair's foreign policy, nor serious social injustice. I heard, for the first time in my life, the most preposterous reasons for hours of delays in the tube or on the rail network: "The train service is stopped because of heavy rain", or "because of leaves on the tracks". I'd look around and wait for a cue to join a vocal public outrage or an improvised demo, but nobody ever stirred, nobody even sighed.

Here were people, I thought, who could endure everything without complaining. I admired what looked like a cold-blooded apathy, an indifference which could however flare up in no time to the most extreme violence, often fuelled by drinking. I seemed to have landed in a fascinating country of extremes where there was no place for a healthy anger which makes you take to the streets, admonish the government and go back home happy.

Of course, I knew it wasn't a bad thing to have such an unemotional neighbour: always useful when we, the French, need to be helped out of our own devastating passions and misery as in the 1940s. Yet, I was longing for the time when I'd see my British friends react and tell their government that they and only they were the only real legitimate power in the country. After all, if the Parliament fails to act, why shouldn't the people of whom Westminster is an emanation take matters in their hands?

So the Heathrow protest comes as a relief, a joy even, to watch for a foreigner like me. However, it is striking to see how British this protest is. Johann Hari reported yesterday in The Independent how it seemed that every single eco-friendly peaceful protester camping there was a science graduate, with more PhD doctors per square metre than brioches in a French boulangerie. Where was the mob to back all those docs up? Of course, one may emerge and wreak havoc between my writing this and you reading it, but that will not diminish the point or change the nature of the original camp.

As for the Government, the police and BAA, they don't seem to know how to react to this protest which continues, and they look the sillier for it. The Government is thinking about using anti-terror laws to break the peaceful demonstration, the police claim the anarchists have infiltrated the camp and BAA has tried to have it branded illegal. Make demonstration illegal? Try that one in France ...

Let's look at big protests here. In the past 10 years, the British have taken to the streets twice and those were the biggest demonstrations in the history of contemporary Britain. Some 400,000 people demonstrated against the ban on fox-hunting on 22 September 2002 and then, breaking all records, one million people marched against the war in Iraq on 15 February 2003. I'm glad I was in the country. Now at least I know you can do it.

In France, there are up to 10 demos every week; tiny ones and huge ones, from 200 demonstrators at a time to marches that top the million mark. In Paris, they usually take the route from Place de la République to Nation via La Bastille. Sometimes the turnover is maddening, as between 21 April 2002 when Le Pen of the Front National found himself in the second round of the presidential election opposing Jacques Chirac and 5 May that year when Chirac was elected with 80 per cent of the vote. For two weeks, one or two million people throughout France demonstrated every day. Hey, you don't often have to choose between a future president who is either a staunch right-winger or a fascist. Only in France ...

There are fundamental differences between collective action in the UK and in France. Although you gave shelter to Karl, Marxism never influenced you the way it affected and shaped our way of thinking. Even among the Fabians, the intellectual theorists of the Labour movement from the 1880s onwards, Marxism and its confrontational views were never popular.

Fabians, British socialists, were reformists not revolutionaries. Rationalists and utilitarians, they thought that men had to behave sensibly rather than break dramatically with the past. Fabians never considered class struggle as an instrument of change. Were they even aware of it? They also weren't the slightest bit confrontational towards non-socialists or anybody who didn't share their views. Just think of the origin of their name: Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, known as The Delayer, a Roman general, who advocated harassment and attrition tactics rather than head-on battles against the Carthaginian army and its general Hannibal. When you know that Labour is a loose reincarnation of Fabianism, you cannot fail to understand that street tactics could never be a natural way of expressing oneself for the British Left, let alone Liberals or Conservatives.

In France it was almost totally the opposite. Marxism and socialism were one and still are today in so many ways. Of course, there always were reformists, partisans of democratic socialism such as the lawyer Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and the politician-historian Louis Blanc (whose importance can't be ignored as they both got a tube station named after them). However, Armand Barbès and Louis-Auguste Blanqui were advocators of testosterone action (and also got a tube station each).

The idea that France can only evolve and reform its economic and social system through episodes of civil unrest is deeply rooted in the national psyche. Look at Jean Jaurès (yes, he got a Metro station too). This emblematic figure of the French Left had one ambition: marry the République to socialism, Marxism with liberal ideas from the French Revolution, patriotism with internationalism.

When Mitterrand was elected in 1981 he governed with French communists. Today, part of the Parti Socialiste is still permeated with Marxism. They don't seem to have noticed that the western world has now entered the post-materialist age, but that's another story.

But of course, even when protests take place on either side of the Channel our two countries differ totally, like the two sides of a same coin. For the British taking to the streets comes as a last resort action, almost a desperate attempt to make themselves heard. It comes only after petitions, boycotts, ranting on blogs and in the media, writing to MPs have failed. Hence the desperation that lurks even in formidable actions such as those of Brian Haw, who has been camping on front of the Parliament for the last six years.

In France, protesting is the first thing that springs to mind. We vent our anger first then we agree to talk. It's so easy. Like bookshops and cinemas, there is always a demo near you. Found something that really annoys you in the news, say Putin's visit to France? The radio news bulletin will tell you where to go and at what time. You go, look angry, shout slogans, listen to your favourite and sexy intellectuals speak, march a little, stare at the CRS – the riot police – just to check that they know who's the boss, and you go back home, energised, just like after a jog in the park. Demonstrating feels good, like going to the shrink, and, what's more, it's free. I remember as a student in London taking the Eurostar especially to go and demonstrate in the streets of Paris. That's what cheap student fares are for, aren't they?

For Parisians, the idea of demonstrating is even more sacred than anywhere else in the country, as building barricades was a recurrent feature in the capital's history from the French Revolution up to 1968. Yet, as a layer of tarmac has now almost entirely covered the cobble-stoned streets, one has to make do with peaceful demonstrations rather than barricades. Never forget that each time we demonstrate, we're unconsciously re-enacting the fall of the Bastille. I remember the first time that I marched. A first demonstration is like a first kiss, forever imprinted on one's mind, except in my case, protesting was even better than love at first sight. It was December 1986 and I was 13.

Demos are not the only, even if they are by far the favourite, way to express anger in France. Striking and commando-style operations are also a must, a little like Heathrow protesters gluing their hands to the doors of the Department of Transport building. In France, wine-makers shoot up tankers carrying New World plonk, farmers dump tons of rotten fruits and vegetables on supermarkets' parking areas and throw their trolleys in the river for good measure, José Bové, candidate to the presidential elections, destroyed a McDonald's restaurant. Even the French police demonstrate... against crime.

Perhaps the British don't protest as much as their elders did in the Sixties because they are now afraid of doing so. On 1 August, 2005 a new law banned all protests which do not have advance permission from the Metropolitan Police from within half a mile of the House of Commons. On 28 September, 2005, a veteran Labour delegate and Jewish refugee from the Nazis, 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, was man-handled and ejected from the conference hall for heckling the Government about its policy on the war in Iraq. He was then refused readmission under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. On 3 October 2005, six students from Lancaster University appealed against their convictions: they had been prosecuted and found guilty of disrupting a corporate event at their university. They had staged a five-minute peaceful demonstration.

British dissenters can't even find refuge in trade unions. Thatcher managed to con them out of most of their rights. They have stopped being a strong democratic counterpoint. Of course, you still hear them from time to time but their voice sounds so faint. Remember Gate Gourmet in August 2005? When I had to explain to French readers that going on strike out of solidarity for fellow workers was illegal in the UK since the Employment Act of 1990, I was met with bewilderment. Surely, I must be kidding.

Now, at last, it seems attitudes are changing. The British are taking to the streets (or at least the airport perimeters, the Westminster greens and the flood plains of the west). Let's all keep on being angry, and let the world hear it, it's good for public health and for our democracies.

Agnès Poirier is author of 'Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English'; www.agnespoirier.com.

Further reading: 'Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution', by Ruth Scurr, is published by Vintage, priced £8.99

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