Our Man In Paris: A 'mouvement' in the wrong direction

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In France, when you hear the word mouvement, you know that everything is about to stop. A mouvement social is the politically correct phrase for a strike. France has been subject to a lot of sudden mouvements - in other words partial paralysis - for the past month.

In France, when you hear the word mouvement, you know that everything is about to stop. A mouvement social is the politically correct phrase for a strike. France has been subject to a lot of sudden mouvements - in other words partial paralysis - for the past month.

The other day I had to drive a tiny hire car all the way from lake Geneva to Paris because the planes and trains were on strike. After a six hour drive through violent thunderstorms, my sympathy for the present mouvements was somewhat diminished.

Just over a year ago, many French electors refused to vote, or voted for the nasties of the far right, or loonies of the far left, because they said mainstream politicians did nothing or, in any case, failed to deliver their promises.

I was asked at the time to write a short commentary on the election for the newspaper Le Figaro. Politicians in all countries, I said, lied to their electorate. France was unusual because the electorate lied to the politicians.

French voters claim that they crave a government which will "move France forward". In truth, I wrote, they don't. If any government tries to change anything, a section of the population stops work and marches in the street to protect the status quo. Much of the rest of the country applauds.

I received a number of pained letters from Figaro readers attacking me for being anti-French. (Moi?)

One year later...

The centre-right government, elected with an overwhelming majority last June, is attempting - no doubt imperfectly - to deliver some of its promises. It wants to reform the pensions system before it collapses; to reduce the size of the state in order to make the French economy more dynamic; to transfer some of the power of the central government to the regions and départements (counties).

And so...

A section of the population, led by teachers and railwaymen, is intermittently stopping work and marching in the street to protect the status quo. Much of the country - 65 per cent according to recent polls - applauds.

The strikers say that they are defending the "public service" in France, which they believe - or claim to believe - is threatened with the dilapidation which has overcome some public services in Britain. In truth, the strikers seem to equate personal privileges and corporate union privileges with the public good.

Some teachers have been on strike for four weeks, just as their pupils approach the baccalaureat and other exams. Others are threatening to set up picket lines to block their own pupils from taking the bac from this week. In other words, to defend some abstract notion of the inviolable essence of the "French school", they are ready to sacrifice the future of individual children in their charge.

What is the threat to the French way of education? The government suggests that teachers should work a couple of years longer and that school nurses and janitors - not teachers - should be transferred from national to local control. Teachers have a lot of other grievances, some imagined, some real, but an important background issue is maintaining the power of the teaching unions in a centralised school system.

In some ways France in 2003 resembles Britain circa 1977. In Britain Margaret Thatcher arrived to break up corporatist privileges. In doing so, she also smashed up many public services. It does not have to be done that way.

Fine that France should invest in high-speed railways and excellent schools. Fine that France should treat public sector workers with respect. Not necessarily fine for train drivers to work an 11-hour-week and retire on 75 per cent pensions at 55. Not fine for the teaching unions to maintain an unhealthy grip on everything from the kindergarten curriculum to individual teaching appointments.

There are signs that the strike movement is fading (in any case, the teachers will be going on holiday soon). If the government wins, it will be a small enough step forward but - for anyone who wishes France long-term wealth and happiness - an important one.

Americans play it cool at the G8 summit

I was stranded beside lake Geneva because I had been to the G8 summit in Evian, which was even more pointless than these things usually are. Summits do, however, mimic life in telling ways.

A great proportion of the world's press (more than 2,500 of us) were housed in a temporarily converted sports centre stifling in temperatures of over 30C.

The travelling White House press corps were given their own hardboard tent with air conditioning set at arctic levels, just like American offices.

President George Bush departed half way through the summit; so did the White House press corps. The tent remained for another 36 hours with the air conditioning still roaring away.

A few dishevelled, heat-struck journalists, including me, tried to enter. We were chased away as if we were Mexicans trying to cross the Rio Grande.

Finn on the ground

Actually, G8 summits are not completely useless. I sat next to two attractive women from Finnish TV at the communal press lunch one day. After striking up a conversation, I easily got what I wanted: a Finnish one euro piece for my collection of different euro coins from the 12 Euroland nations.

Of the 96 coins in general circulation, I have still failed to locate nine, including five of the eight from Finland. The journalists dismissed my working hypothesis that the Finns never leave home. Finns travel enormously, they said, but rarely to France, which is not hot - or hot-blooded enough - for Finnish tastes. They prefer Italy.

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