The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - cook­fi­delma@hot­ Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook FIDELMA COOK

THERE were many things that de­lighted me when I first came to France and to what I thought was a free-spir­ited, an­ti­au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­try. Ob­vi­ously smok­ing vastly cheaper cig­a­rettes wher­ever I wanted was the im­me­di­ate bonus, as was tak­ing my dog any­where I wanted.

Sit­ting in sun-drenched squares, killing my­self on the cheap, I’d found Par­adise, hav­ing left a coun­try that la­belled peo­ple like me pari­ahs and forced us on to the streets to in­dulge our le­gal habit. Any­one pass­ing in those days would have won­dered why the mad woman kept rais­ing her glass, then drag­ging on her fag, with a toast of “Up yours”.

And ev­ery­thing seemed to be half the price of all I’d left be­hind. Com­ing out of the su­per­mar­ket, trol­ley brim­ming over, I couldn’t be­lieve how cheaply I’d just catered for a week­end house party.

But then with £1 worth ¤1.45 of course it was. Af­ter the lu­di­crously priced restau­rants of the city, eat­ing out here was even cheaper than buy­ing the stuff.

In truth though noth­ing de­lighted me more than the al­most con­stant round of strikes and demos; the dis­rup­tions caused by an­gry farm­ers in trac­tors, stu­dents with huge ban­ners un­furled and once, mem­o­rably, a city’s ad­vo­cates chained to the court gates in some protest or other.

I joined the Na­tional Union of Jour­nal­ists on my first day in work and will al­ways be a mem­ber, be­liev­ing unions to be the work­ers’ last bul­wark against in­jus­tice and re­pres­sion. Even stripped of many rights and of­ten led by lem­mings rush­ing to self-de­struc­tion, they were born of a no­ble need to pro­tect the weak­est and gather a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing power.

When they were, in some cases lit­er­ally, beaten off the streets by gov­ern­ment, all that was left in the place I sailed away from were the sad, sani­tised, per­mit­ted and care­fully con­trolled demos. So to see toot­hand-claw union ac­tion on the cob­bles once more cheered my old, an­ar­chist heart. And af­ter all, I had no of­fice to go to, rarely a plane to catch, no press­ing needs to at­tend to, so I could sit back and watch the fun.

But of course noth­ing re­mains the same, apart from my be­lief in unions.

No-smok­ing laws were in­tro­duced here (of­ten ig­nored, it has to be said); prices seemed to sud­denly rise; the ex­change rate be­gan its roller­coaster ride to a still un­known des­ti­na­tion and this once revo­lu­tion­ary coun­try flirted too strongly with the dark forces of fas­cism and racism.

Of course there is no such thing as Par­adise. Grad­u­ally, af­ter many years of be­liev­ing oth­er­wise, I re­alised the French are of­ten full of sound and fury, sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

The march, the demo is an end in it­self. Hon­our sat­is­fied, the ban­ners are put away un­til next time and lit­tle changes.

Ex­cept when it comes to em­ploy­ment re­form, changes in the mas­sively gen­er­ous so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem and any­thing that leaves the worker vul­ner­a­ble.

Labour code re­form is the rock on which ev­ery pres­i­dent per­ishes. Macron be­lieves he will be dif­fer­ent, in­tro­duc­ing by rea­soned ar­gu­ment and stealth re­forms that are vi­tal to bring France in line with the rest of the Western world.

Un­der his pro­pos­als, it would become sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier for medium and small busi­nesses to sack work­ers. Trade union col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing would be wa­tered down; firms with fewer than 20 staff will be able to ne­go­ti­ate with in­di­vid­u­als in­stead of a union branch. The gov­ern­ment also wants a cap on pay­outs from in­dus­trial tri­bunals.

Last Tues­day, hun­dreds of thou­sands walked out on strike in protest – an ac­tion called by the rad­i­cal CGT Union, the largest labour fed­er­a­tion. But pulling many strings is the em­bit­tered far Left leader, for­mer Marx­ist fac­tory worker Jean-Luc Me­len­chon, who vowed al­most from day one of Macron’s pres­i­dency to take him down.

Join­ing the protest in Mar­seille he said dis­mis­sively: “This coun­try doesn’t want the lib­eral world – France is not Bri­tain.” A cu­ri­ous turn of phrase con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances, but one that will res­onate in the murky un­der­belly of this coun­try where Right and Left ul­ti­mately join in a per­fect cir­cle.

In­ter­est­ingly, the other unions have re­mained a touch de­tached this time and in­di­cated will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise. And, for once, I see com­pro­mise as a good way for­ward. It comes from ac­tu­ally liv­ing here and watch­ing small busi­nesses go­ing un­der, drowned in red tape and puni­tive labour laws. But change doesn’t have to be done in the way of a Thatcher or a May gov­ern­ment. There are gen­tler, de­cent ways to pro­tect the weak and the sim­ply in­ca­pable. French work­ers still be­lieve that and take to the streets to re­mind their lead­ers that ul­ti­mate power still rests there.

The com­ing months will test both Macron and the unions and one hopes that com­pro­mise is reached.

No, France is not Bri­tain, thank God, look­ing back at what is to come.

I hope, hope it is bet­ter.

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