In France, you can never protest too much

The blockades are a sign of a healthy democracy, says Michÿle Roberts

Share

My French grandfather used to enjoy teasing my English father that the statue dominating Trafalgar Square was not of Nelson, but of Napoleon. Those two adversaries were invoked last week by angry British tourists, trapped by French protesters and prevented from entering the Channel Tunnel near Calais. Noticing that the police were allowing French cars to filter through one lane of the blocked motorway, a group of about 50 holidaymakers staged their own blockade, and eventually forced the police to escort them through. Perfidious Albion had won again, following Wellington's advice always to get over rough ground as lightly as possible. The cross Brits also referred proudly to our respect for law and order and criticised French unruliness and bloody-mindedness. We would never behave like them was the smug implication.

My French grandfather used to enjoy teasing my English father that the statue dominating Trafalgar Square was not of Nelson, but of Napoleon. Those two adversaries were invoked last week by angry British tourists, trapped by French protesters and prevented from entering the Channel Tunnel near Calais. Noticing that the police were allowing French cars to filter through one lane of the blocked motorway, a group of about 50 holidaymakers staged their own blockade, and eventually forced the police to escort them through. Perfidious Albion had won again, following Wellington's advice always to get over rough ground as lightly as possible. The cross Brits also referred proudly to our respect for law and order and criticised French unruliness and bloody-mindedness. We would never behave like them was the smug implication.

Crude generalisations of that kind are insulting - and were quickly proved wrong. By last night, some petrol stations in England were beginning to run out of supplies, following blockades of fuel depots by angry motorists, who were protesting about prices.

Yet there was little sign that the protest could escalate to the extent it had in France, where six days of tax protests choked fuel supplies and disrupted daily life throughout the country.

So why do we have such different approaches to social protest? One generalisation that does jump out is that the French have fairly recently had revolutions, whereas our last one was in the 17th century, and we've hung on to our monarch. Our national anthem proclaims us as the Queen's subjects, whereas the Marseillaise hails citoyens and citoyennes.

On the other hand, many of my farmer neighbours in north-west France are fascinated voyeurs of Windsoresque frolics. They may be anti-authority, but they are not necessarily progressive. Not for them the ideal of multiculturalism.

The French are not as collectively and simplistically arrogant as their critics suppose. When President Jacques Chirac announced his nuclear testing programme in 1995, the left in Britain howled him down but ignored the strong criticisms expressed inside France. This year similar outrage has greeted proposals by the government to bury its nuclear waste in the Mayenne.

French people are territorial. Each group or region wants to defend its own patch. A country with a deeply rural past, with, for example, a history of fine regional cooking and wine-making actively promoted by the state, will not take easily to foreign attempts at domination, as witnessed by recent protests against McDonald's. Contradictions abound. On the one hand the French have taken to fast food with gusto, and on the other they can feel threatened by it. They sense that their national identity is slipping away.

If you're territorial, provincial and rural, you can feel far away from the government, not understood by it, not listened to. Not everybody wants to pay what they perceive as towering taxes to finance health care, child care and child benefit. The night before I left France last Thursday, with just enough petrol to get back, I had dinner with my neighbour, a farmer. She complained that out of every 1,000 francs she and her husband make, the state takes 800.

She understood the petrol protests, even though her husband couldn't run his fleet of agricultural machines without fuel, and stood to lose money. She is not unusual. According to a report in Friday's Le Parisien, nine out of 10 people continue to support the blockades and protests.

The radical tradition is bolstered by the strength of the trade unions. Modernisation, as it is euphemistically called over here in Britain, has not yet swept away their power. Despite its revolutions, France has remained a stratified culture, with strongly marked social divisions, a rich bourgeoisie, rigid up-down management-worker relations. Some commentators see the French parliament as too weak to sustain vibrant debate. If it feels difficult to find a legitimate way of making your point in parliament, then direct action seems the only answer. British unions, on the other hand, were practically knocked out under Conservative rule, at the same time as the public was taught to vilify them as against the interests of the people as a whole.

A second underpinning of French willingness to protest must be the country's highly regarded state school system; free to all and free of the religious indoctrination which subordinates desire and will. A climate of intellectual freedom encourages people to ask difficult questions of those in power. We have a lot to learn from our friends across the Channel.

The situation in France is likely to become more complicated if Green protests gather more momentum. The Green Party is a member of the Socialist-led coalition, and has already made it clear that it objects to encouraging higher road use through offering more concessions to drivers. French nationalism and French environmentalism do not co-exist easily together. The definition of French rebelliousness is about to take a further twist.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
 

General Election 2015: You’re welcome to join us on the campaign's final straight

Lisa Markwell
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk