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.