In France, you can never protest too much

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

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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.

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