Wistful France by James D. Le Sueur

Viewers watching again as France confronts what seems to have become an endless flow of street protests might not be surprised to hear that French President Jacques Chirac stormed out of an EU economic summit Thursday evening in a fit of rage.  Chirac, clearly in a defensive mood, was outraged by the fact that one of his own countrymen, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, chose to speak in English rather than his native tongue during an important EU business summit. As The International Herald Tribune reported:  “‘It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of culture and the dialogue of cultures,’ he [Chirac] said Friday. ‘You cannot build the world of the future on just one language and, hence, one culture.’”

The Guardian Article

Of course, Chirac’s reaction this week takes place within an historical context in which France has tried to preserve the use and place of the French language within Europe’s key political and cultural institutions, including the UN, EU, and the Olympic movement.  This attempt to shore up support for French has meant that for over a decade France has also designed a protectionist policy at home meant to inoculate France from the from the linguistic imperialism of English. However, unrealistic as this has been, it’s certainly understandable, and it has yielded laws that have regulated the amount of French that must be spoken in particular settings, played over the radio, or even projected in cinemas. It’s an ongoing debate, and Chirac’s frustration no doubt comes from the fact that he seems to be fighting a losing battle.

Chirac has until next Tuesday to resolve the current crisis. Otherwise, a planned national strike by the students and the labor unions will be carried out with possibly debilitating effects on the country’s economy.  In many ways, these groups have behaved as Chirac did at the EU meeting, walking away insulted after hearing unpleasant news.  But the protesters also have a point, as the new law gives enormous power to employers to hire and fire employees as employers see fit – and without justification. 

However, the demonstrators this week, as in November, have also shown a propensity for street violence. In fact, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who became a familiar name in America after the November riots, has already counted hundreds of arrests and seems overwhelmed by the public’s opposition to the government.  Though Sarkozy, with his eyes on the French presidency, has already begun to distance himself from the law.  Meanwhile, de Villepin – who also has his sights set on becoming the next president – seems equally bedeviled by the situation.  Yet, de Villepin, unlike Sarkozy, isn’t giving into the protestors.

Read “No Agreement in Talks on French Labor Law” in The International Herald Tribune

Read "Concerns Over Violence Intensify in France" in The International Herald Tribune

Read “CPE : Villepin dit vouloir "répondre aux deux préoccupations majeures des jeunes"” in Le Monde

So, what’s going on in France?

Historically, since 1789 France has possessed a unique propensity for street protests fueled by fierce identity crises that have flared up often and that have produced mixed results. The current government of the 5th Republic was itself brought into power in May 1958 by a coup d’état, after the army commanders then based in Algeria promised to take over (attack really) the French parliament itself if Charles de Gaulle was not returned to power.  (He was in retirement.) Distrusting the civilian authorities, the military commanders wanted the conservative de Gaulle in power, as they believed only this military man could keep Algeria French.  Hence, with the army literally on its way to attack the French institutions of power in Paris, the French government of the 4th Republic submitted, and Charles de Gaulle became the first president of the new (and may claimed illegitimate) 5th Republic.

Ultimately, the coup brought in a new government, but Algeria won its independence anyway.  Then, a few years later de Gaulle found himself surrounded by forces on the left, when students and labor movements united and called for change by taking over the streets.  Unable to control the May 1968 riots, de Gaulle again brought in the military to restore order.  The military came, but de Gaulle’s reputation was shredded in the process.  For its work, the military extracted a last important concession from de Gaulle, forcing him to grant amnesty to those who had mutinied against and plotted the assassination of the president himself during the French-Algerian War (1954-62). This amnesty permanently immunized war criminals (torturers and assassins specifically) from prosecution.  These surreal turn of events quite naturally became the stuff of fiction and works of history, with Ben Abro’s Assassination! Assassination_1 July 14 and Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal picking up the pace.

Uncivil_war_1 In the end, France’s luster faded for years, until Chirac spearheaded “Old Europe’s” rejection of the American assault on Iraq in 2003.

More recently, the October-November 2005 riots forced the French state to face the fact that it had a growing race problem.



The state, however, has continued to insist that race is not something France can or ought think about in its official mind, and de Villepin’s oblique efforts to address the ills of unemployment (and racism in the workplace) have run aground this week. Not surprisingly, the streets have again proved to be a decisive factor in French politics.

This past week, the student and labor protests have demonstrated that France’s time-honored tradition of street protest is alive and well. But the question remains: will these recent street protests lead to real socio-economic reform or to more conservative forces such as the extreme right coming into power?  This is a serious problem, one that concerns France and the EU.  It is also a problem because many previous street protests unwittingly cleared a path for the right wing to claim that, if anything, it alone could govern the ungovernable masses and their conflicting notions of French identity. There are plenty of historical examples of just this phenomenon happening in France (Napoleon, Napoleon III, de Gaulle). Will someone like the xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen be next?

Indeed, let’s not forget that Le Pen was the run-off candidate against Chirac for the French presidency in the last elections.  The chaos of the French streets might be just the recipe needed during the next elections for Le Pen and his followers to convince voters that the extreme right has the solution for France’s interminable identity crises and street-level politics.  It would be a foul meal, if this recipe’s really served up for real, but it wouldn’t be outside the logic of French history.

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