Monday, January 16, 2006


Last week, the French media headlined the tenth anniversary of the death of François Mitterrand, who passed away on January 8, 1996.

For those not au fait with recent French history, he was President of the Fifth Republic from 1981 to 1995. The Fifth Republic began in 1958, and the center-right held power – the presidency, the National Assembly, and the Senate – for the next twenty-three years running. Mitterrand was the fourth President, and the first on the left: preceding him were Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. After his election in May, 1981, the National Assembly went "left" in the subsequent legislative elections in June … and modern France changed forever.

Throughout the past week, across the political spectrum from left to right, via the rapidly shrinking center, his 'achievements' were trumpeted anew and his 'scandals' condemned afresh. Statistics were trotted out or fudged, studies were brandished or smothered, and memories were expurgated or repackaged for the umpteenth time. New, improved spin was applied to old events, while personal anecdotes of his two tenures were massaged and modified by the surviving protagonists, both male and female, so as to fill the airwaves and the press. Even vocabulary from the past resurfaced: Mitterrand was frequently called 'an uncle' (un tonton) to the French: the word tontonmanie means "Mitterrand lovers" or "Mitterrand groupiethink". This last week was definitely filled with tontonmanie - as well as a reinvigorated tontonphobie.

Amerloque was unsurprised to note that another of Mitterrand's nicknames, le florentin, ("the Florentine", in reference to Renaissance political manipulators such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent) somehow didn't receive as much airtime. Ah, nostalgie, quand tu nous tiens !

A blog such as Amerloque's is, alas, not the place to learn in depth about 'the Mitterrand years', for two main reasons.

First of all, too much occurred. Amerloque's compression of fifteen or so eventful years into several paragraphs, no matter how well intentioned, just wouldn't cut the historical mustard and, moreover, would probably end up being unfair to everyone, most especially to readers. Hard choices as to what to include would have to be made, and, perhaps inevitably, some important or innocuous happenings would be overemphasized or shortchanged. So much took place, with so many ramifications today and tomorrow, that sheer intellectual accuracy would require pages and pages of explanation, commentary and footnotes, so as to nuance each proffered opinion and avoid falling into simplistic, black and white pronouncements.

Second, it's simply too soon to draw up an honest and balanced assessment of what Mitterrand – and 'his' Socialists – did for France, both in positive and in negative terms. Certainly one can focus on a given issue – abolition of the death penalty, for example, or the Rainbow Warrior affair, or the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty, or daily astrology in the Presidential palace, or alleged dumbing down of education, or architectural megalomania – and draw conclusions. However, certain institutions in the France of today are still being annealed in the fires set with some impetuosity during the Mitterrand era, while others, in their turn, are being steadily enfeebled in those very same flames, which dance and subside daily in varying degrees. Even the current Wikipedia entry about Mitterrand is prefaced with the ominous caveat "The neutrality of this article is disputed." Indeed … 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,' goes the old saying: so Amerloque, being neither, ventures nowhere therein.

This is not to say, however, that a bit of useful exegesis about the 'Mitterrand years' cannot be offered. When looking back at the Mitterrand era to comment or criticize Amerloque is sure that he is prone to as much fuzziness ("fog, indistinctness, mist, murk, vagueness") as any French person. Amerloque, a guest in France, lived through those years here; some things do stand out, when looking back. Depending on the day and the season, there was the genuinely outrageous … and the downright reasonable. There were proposals of profound wisdom … and of shallow foolishness. There were events and ideas glorious … and, alas, vainglorious.

Amerloque will simply offer one quick anecdote from the Mitterrand years to those current American expatriates who wonder why it is that 'there are so many demonstrations in France' and why French people 'allow it' or 'are not upset by it'. Sometimes the American expat even asks 'what good do they do ?'. Set aside 1968 and its famous demos for a moment – that was some time ago ! The power of 'the street' to weigh on an issue in France was never demonstrated so amply within recent living memory as during the Mitterrand years.

One of Mitterrand's – and the Socialists' – proposals immediately upon assuming power in 1981, along with various nationalizations, was the closure of all private schools in France and their permanent integration into the public school system, l'Education Nationale. Needless to say; a goodly percentage of the population, having voted against the left, disagreed with this project and began to make its opposition known as soon as the government, under Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, indicated that it would pursue the issue energetically. Proposal followed proposal and review followed review, chez les politiques … and the increasingly worried private schools (les écoles libres, i.e., "free schools") finally deemed that the time had come to react. Led by the Roman Catholics, they decided to show the Socialist government that, should it continue in the same vein, serious and lasting social malaise would result. They chose to ratchet up the pressure as the final version of the education bill neared completion.

Demonstrations began locally, in medium sized towns in Brittany and the West, both regions of France that are traditionally anti-central government. In October, 1983, a pro-private school demonstration attracted 100,000 people in Nantes; this brought about the desired attention in government and media. The parents and schools buckled down to the task, things became much more organized (the nascent Minitel turned out to be a useful tool to complement the landbased telephone: no cellphones or home PCs or internet back then !) … and, on March 4, 1984, in Versailles, a bastion of private education west of Paris … 800,000 defenders of private, non-governmental schools took to the streets. Dozens of automobiles, buses and trains brought in demonstrators from all over northern France, who were housed overnight with likeminded families. The government took notice but did not change its plans - at least in public.

Three months later, in June, 1984, the masterfully organized pro-private school forces put two million demonstrators simultaneously into the streets of Paris. The government threw in the towel. The bill was shelved forever … and several weeks later, Mauroy was sacked by Mitterrand (as was his Minister for Education, Alain Savary), to be replaced by Laurent Fabius.

Adult French people are aware of how the private school demonstrators made the government back down. It is a part of the French collective memory, as are the truckers' strikes not so long ago. Under the last Socialist Prime Minister, M. Jospin, even the gendarmes and the police demonstrated in protest. In France, if enough people take to the streets, in a sustained manner, the government will cave in. The French know that, and the expat, ever so quick to judge – perhaps because he or she has only been here a few years and has had no access to the collective memory - would do well to heed the lesson.

In addition, as time passes, perceived reality takes over from reality. In France today, there is increasing soul-searching and breast-beating about events in France, the French social model and the role of France in the world. Edouard Balladur, a former Prime Minister, once termed it déclinisme (which could be rendered here as "defeatism"). Alain Duhamel, that keen and lasting weatherman of the French political scene, has railed against les mousquetaires du déclinisme ("the defeatist musketeers"). The current Prime Minister, M de Villepin, scathingly referred to les déclinologues ("the experts in defeat") in his recent New Year's wishes to the press. They are not wrong … yet in Amerloque's view they see only one side of the coin, and not necessarily the side that the average French man or woman observes. The statistics that the politicians and the international organizations and the media amass and quote don’t mean too much at the end of the day, politically speaking, if they don’t reflect the perceived reality – i.e., the reality of the average French man or woman simply trying to make ends meet, to raise a family, to hold a job, to live a life.

The French remember Mitterrand - and his successes and failures. A French man or woman over, say, forty years old, remembers the pre-Mitterrand era, too. He or she remembers what the situation was prior to the election - and how it changed under Mitterrand. He or she imagines what it could have become, had other choices been made by Mitterand and the Socialists – or if Mitterrand hadn't been elected, or if he hadn't been elected twice. People recall yesterday, when it was, in fact, better – on that perceived individual level. They say to their children, or other members of the family, 'Ah, it used to be this way, years ago … remember ? it was much better, eh ?'

In some cases, it can be argued that it was better 'then', both in reality and on that perceived individual level. France has become a consumer culture (it wasn’t, before the Mitterrand years). Did the French see this consumer society coming ? No. Were they asked about it ? No. Were other things explained to them beforehand ? No. (By ‘other things’, Amerloque simply means private TV and radio, changes in advertising, employment law, consumer credit laws, social entitlements, immigration, the school system ... nationalizations and subsequent privatizations of public services ... dozens and dozens of changes over the past years, a great many of them initiated during Mitterrand's terms as President).

Some of the problems in today's France come directly from the Mitterrand years, as do some of France's successes. For the moment, the French collective memory seems to be focused exclusively on the black and the white of those years, and not on the gray. A part of the current déclinisme, echoed by the media and many opinionmakers for their own ends, thus can be attributed to what Mitterrand and his Socialists did and didn't do - but only a part. What remains to be seen is how much attention is paid to the lessons offered to today's France by the Mitterrand years.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Morning

Penning the first long post in the New Year is a delicate task.

Should one go back through the events of the preceding year, placing them into some sort of hierarchy ? Among the cataclysms and the godsends, the films and the books, the stock markets and mergers, the world's ecstatic winners and abysmal losers, there is always room for debate, discussion and discourse. Which disaster was in fact the worst ? Which Hollywood blockbuster was the most memorable ? Which personality - in politics, media, crime, sports - deserves to be singled out, for praise or for blame ? Such rankings are all in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Should one set down on paper one's predictions for the upcoming twelve months ? This is risky and fraught with peril, since foretelling in black and white what is supposedly to come can quite easily be checked for accuracy - one has only to wait twelve months. Every year astrologers, psychics, crystalball gazers, readers of tea leaves and other pundits attempt prophecies and forecasts: a certain politician elected, a stock market index surpassed, a cinema award won, a catastrophe undergone. They never, ever give up, in spite of lamentable track records and an apparent absence of a humble willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Should one meticulously enumerate one's resolutions for the New Year ? Such a list, drawn up in what must be presumed to be good faith, of course, reveals quite a bit about the writer, especially perceived weaknesses. What can be inferred when one reads "being nicer to everyone", "losing weight", "working out more", "spending more time outdoors", and "quitting smoking" in one individual's program for the year ? If not that the writer is a cranky, obese, couch potato wreathed in blue smoke, what else ?

Finally, should one make public one's wish(es) for the New Year ? Is that not presumptuous ? Will it not call down the wrath of the wishing gods ?

So, on y va ! Amerloque will herewith rank one event in France, make one prediction about France, share one resolution and make one wish - all to kick off the New Year !

Amerloque feels that, although the past year in France saw its share of noteworthy happenings (including, in no particular order, a change of government, a partial privatization of EDF, spectacular civil unrest in slum neighborhoods, the purchase outright by the His Grace the Duke of Westminster of two major upscale flea markets at the Porte de Clignancourt, the splintering of the Socialist Party, substantial rollbacks in social protection, the closing of the Samaritaine department store in Paris, the bicentennial of the 1905 Law concerning the separation of church and state, and the unofficial kickoff to the presidential elections two years hence), the most important event was the people's rejection of the European Constitution in the May referendum.

Portrayed as a "surprise", a "shock", and even a "disaster" by most mainstream politicians and the media - all of whom, apparently, are living on the same cloud in lalaland - the 55% to 45% vote (a 10% difference !) was, as the French say, sans appel ("incontrovertible" will do nicely). The runup to the election was wonderful: the French rose admirably to the occasion and demonstrated by their committed conversations and cerebral conferences why the country is Cartesian. Less than admirable, however, have been the subsequent media/political blackouts over the reasons for the French rejection. The "pollsters" and the media reported that the French voted non on the constitutional treaty because they were "frightened", "fed up with President Chirac", "worried about the future" and "upset about the economy, especially unemployment".

Well … while reasons such as these definitely contributed to the defeat of the Constitution, Amerloque's experience – for what it's worth - is that quite a few French people voted non because they are fed up with "Europe". In spite of the political and media obfuscation, deformation, falsification, misinformation, exaggeration, and prevarication, the link between Europe and the rapidly declining French standard of living overall became clear to many French people - and they voted non on the Constitution. They've had enough of "Europe". Well-intentioned pro-Europe arguments - such as "the single market with millions of consumers", "a world power to compete with the USA and China", and "the only answer to rampant globalization" - took a back seat to what French men and women see around them and are faced with every day: an increasingly underperforming health and retirement system, rising violence in the society, a seemingly dumbed-down public educational system, fewer and fewer trains in what used to be an excellent railway network for all, more and more unemployment for young people and subsequent emigration ... among other issues. The loss of national sovereignty to Europe over the past twenty-five years, which would enable France to deal promptly and forthrightly with some, if not all, of the problems, was yet another reason for the non, by the way, as was the adoption of the euro, the European common currency, which was presented as part of the solution but is viewed by many as part of the problem.

Probably no concept during the debates preceding the referendum symbolized the apparent stake as much as "the Polish plumber". This mythical character symbolized all that was "wrong" - in reality or by hyperbole - with the European Constitution, and, by extension, the Europe of today: "social dumping". Workers from the newly-admitted Eastern countries would be able to work throughout Western Europe ... but only be paid salaries at the same level as those their "home" countries, thus undercutting local (French) artisans and workers and throwing them onto the unemployment rolls.

Ever alert to its image in Western Europe, and especially in France, with which it has historic ties dating back many centuries, Poland caught the ball on the bounce after the non vote and turned "the Polish plumber" into a clever marketing ploy to attract tourists.

The brilliant travel poster ("I'm staying in Poland ! Come on, everyone !") is a fitting symbol of Amerloque's choice as the most important event in France in 2005.

Now, as to Amerloque's one prediction for 2006 ... since the end of the riots in November, the media - especially the TV - and political parties have been urging the young people in the projects to register to vote. Certainly, December 31st is the cutoff every year: registration by that date guarantees that one's name will appear on the voters' lists on the following March 1st, during the annual revision/update. However, for over a month, the French at large have been repeatedly and stridently informed that if the "project youths" (les jeunes des cités) really want change, they should register to vote, right now, quickly. From what Amerloque has been able to gather, the calls have been heeded: voter registration is up something like 30% over the preceding year in some "project" towns around Paris.

Wait a minute ... um ... er ... there are no elections scheduled in 2006 ! So what's the rush ? What's going on ? The next elections are scheduled for … 2007. There are national elections (presidential, legislative and senatorial) and local (municipal and cantonal) elections. The Prime Minister, M de Villepin, has proposed moving the two local elections to 2008, so as to reserve 2007 for national elections and … to avoid all-too-possible voter fatigue. This is currently being decided in the Conseil d'Etat, apparently.

Amerloque is familiar with that old French maxim il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu ("There's no smoke without fire") … so here's his out-on-a-limb, free of charge prediction: there will be a national election in 2006, either a "presidential" or a "legislative". No crystal ball, no tea leaves or coffee grounds, no necromancy, no Ouija board, no Tarot cards, no astrology, no statistics, no nothing - just a strong feeling - a hunch, if you will. Given the past, one would be ill-advised indeed to count M Chirac down and out too soon …so perhaps a snap election is in the cards, if the circumstances are right. It's the only prediction for the coming year that Amerloque is willing to share … in black and white, at least.

Amerloque's one 2006 resolution is … "to do better". The resolution is the same, year after year, so Amerloque is breaking no new ground here. (smile)

To close, Amerloque's one wish is that when un américain or une américaine decides to blog about Paris, he or she will avoid posting mindless adolescent drivel about doggy-doo on the Paris sidewalks. We know already. C'est fatiguant, à la longue, et assez réducteur, vous ne trouvez pas ?


©Text Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque