Monday, October 03, 2005


Once the feverish activities of la rentrée have subsided a few notches, and after the French celebrate the now-traditional journées du patrimoine on the third weekend of September, politics come to the fore.

Just as autumn's low temperatures and overcast skies always appear quite soon after the Fall Equinox, the French really embrace la rentrée sociale during the last week in September. It's the time of year when they fully discover which laws and regulations were passed and published (sometimes surprisingly discreetly !) during the summer break, and just how much various unavoidable expenses (e.g., transport costs, electricity and gas services, school fees) have risen concretely since July 1st. Invariably, on the front pages of the papers and weeklies, and in the mouths of the TV newsreaders, the words are ever the same: Est-ce que la rentrée sera chaude ? ("Will the rentrée be hot (for the current government) ?"). For practical purposes, this really equates to: "Will the first autumn anti-government demos turn out large crowds ?" coupled with "Will the government have a tough year ?"

In some years the rentrée is chaude indeed, while in other years it's froide, since the trades unions and the opposition political parties are unable to coordinate sufficiently to formulate credible criticisms of whatever government policies (whether from the left or on the right !) are being attacked. This year ? This year … it's hard to call, on the surface. At least two special circumstances have contributed to the difficulty.

The first is Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's "100 days". Upon his appointment, he promised that tangible results of his (nominally free-market) policies would be clearly visible to all and sundry after a mere one hundred days. The end of this period fell during the second week of September. Politicians and commentators have since consecrated enormous space to the "balance sheet" of those elapsed three months, rather than focusing their time and energy on the upcoming rentrée period - and on the problems yet to be addressed.

The second circumstance is the unexpectedly animated and impassioned debate about candidates for the French Presidency, elections for which are scheduled less than two years away (May, 2007). Mme Segolène Royal, a Socialist, stated in the "people press" that she would be available to stand for President on the Socialist ticket, if asked. With at least six other Socialists maneuvering desperately to stake out their own shifting territories and conflicting claims, it was clear to Amerloque (among many other observers) that the Royal hat was going to be tossed into the ring sooner rather than later. Astonishingly, the ensuing media and political brouhaha was devoted to whether or not a woman could and should hold the Presidency, rather than whether or not Royal had the necessary qualifications.

Frequently phrases uttered publicly here resonate in the collective consciousness and can act a good guide to what French people are thinking privately. In July, Nicolas Sarkozy, the current rightist Minister of the Interior, said: La France gronde …" ("France is snarling" or "France is grumbling". The verb gronder can also used as "scold", "threaten" or "make an alarming noise".) He's certainly on target about that: the French people are unhappy about many, many things and are taking pains to show it to their leaders. However, as he uttered these words during the summer vacation period, not too many people paid attention, being concerned as they were with their usual summertime pursuits. Last week, Charles Fiterman, the Communist former Transport Minister in the Mauroy government (1981-1984) said, referring to the current political climate: Le temps se couvre …. ("The sky is turning overcast" or "The weather is becoming stormy."). When this retired politician speaks, it behooves one to listen, if only to give him the lie.

Looking at the situation today, the words that spring to Amerloque's mind resonate in occitan: Marcelin tornarà ("Marcelin shall return.")

Who is "Marcelin", you might well ask, and why on earth would he "return" ? Briefly: almost one hundred years ago, in 1907, Marcelin Albert was the leader of the peasant revolt in the winemaking region of the Midi. Over one million farmers demonstrated against imports of wine (hey; globalization already !) and fraud (plus ca change ...). Marcelin called for mass civil disobedience, including a general tax strike. The entire region sided with him - even an artillery regiment sent to break up the demonstrators joined them instead. After its victory, the winemakers' revolt (la révolte des vignerons) took its rightful place in the collective memory of the inhabitants of southern France. More recently, during the wine troubles in 1976 at Montredon-des-Corbières (in the Aude), a riot policeman and a peasant were killed during ferocious demonstrations, during which participants brandished signs reading "Marcelin, where are you ?". (Note that such fatalities are extremely rare in France, which is far from being a violent society.)

These latter events gave birth to a song by a village schoolteacher-cum-songsmith, Claude Marti. Written in 1976 in the occitan language, his immensely popular E tu, mon vilatge ("And you, my village") is still being sung today in the South of France: both around campfires on the eve of demonstrations and in chartered buses moving demonstrators to major cities, including Paris. An excerpt:

Podètz cantar, cigalas !
Si lo vin va mal,
Sus nostra tèrra blanca
Marcelin tornarà.

Sing you may, cicadas !
If wine is in trouble,
To our white land
Marcelin shall return.

While seemingly innocuous media catchphrases such as la France gronde and le temps se couvre can and do resonate in the consciousness of many French men and women, the stark and uncompromising Marcelin tornarà may well sum up the situation more accurately, if Amerloque's recent experiences around France are any guide. Wine - along with many other sectors in agriculture, industry and services - is indeed in trouble.

Last week the government sent highly-trained antiterrorist military forces in against ... unarmed unionized strikers. Well, it was in Corsica, not the metropole, and they had hijacked a ferry, after all ... Did seeing the soldiers abseiling from helicopters onto the deck of the ship resonate negatively in the hearts and minds of many French TV viewers ? For those fed up with what are perceived as endless union antics, no. For those who are fed up and suffering and seeking to forge and drive another nail into the coffin of the Villepin government, yes.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is a national day of strikes and demonstrations against the current government and its policies. The keen observer might seen a sign or two referring to "Marcelin". If there are many, it is a portent of events to come.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


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