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

Share

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.

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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing