Happiness is a French riot

By A. A. Gill (THE TIMES, 09/04/06):

Outside in the garden there is the peculiarly, oddly infuriating English dichotomy of rain and a hosepipe ban, while over in Westminster there is the political equivalent of simultaneous drizzle and drought, Blair and Brown. Swans, it turns out, are poisonous as well as mute, Judas was misunderstood and God has been withholding evidence for 2,000 years. They’re selling fake Blue Peter badges on eBay, which seems both sadder and more serious than selling peerages. Just when you think there is no point in getting up at all, over the airwaves comes sonorous John Humphrys telling us that there are still riots in Paris.

Oh calloo callay, oh joy, a shaft of spring sunshine bathes the pillow in schadenfreude. Who cares about hosepipes if it’s raining? God works in mysterious ways and you can get a Blue Peter swipe card instead. Few things can fill the Anglo soul with such warm happiness as the sight of the French getting hysterical in public. Parisian riots are of a marvellously win-win proposition. The dishonest, arrogant, self-interested, lazy baggage handlers, ticket collectors, air-traffic controllers, protected peasants and nihilistic, drivel-ranting students all get doused, bashed and gassed while the repellent attack dogs of the state, the CRS, get cobblestoned and bricked. As an added pleasure there is the humiliation of the government.

Demonstrations in France are a so much more satisfying spectator sport than riots in Italy or Germany or Ireland because the French mind so much. They have absolutely no capacity for self-deprecation; they loathe public embarrassment. There is limited amusement in seeing a man who can take a joke get a tart au crème anglais in the face. But it’s a great thigh-slapping guffaw to watch a man who can barely see over his dignity get gateauxed in the gob.

There is an insufferable self-satisfaction about French politicians, an air of smug entitlement; their suits are too natty, their ties too fulsome. But we know their veneer of statesmanlike reason and grey-templed suavity — all that French polish — masks knees like castanets, livers of the whitest lily, spines of golden jelly. For 100 years French politics has been marked by collective and singular humiliation, brought on by arrant cowardice and duplicity and compromise, all to avoid embarrassment.

We get a peculiar pleasure from seeing another French prime minister having his pants pulled down and being spanked by the sans-culottes because they are always so happy to lecture us on the superiority of Gallic moral virtue. For a nation that has shown a clean pair of heels in so many confrontations, physical and intellectual, they do so love to surround themselves with the trappings of past glory.

There is the added fun of watching the French stumble at a fence we took a generation ago. The inability to deregulate their work practices, to stop being so damn scared of the free market is funny.

They are like the fat kid in the gang who can’t get over the wall. How pathetic is it for French teenagers to be so terrified of the future that they need to be guaranteed that their first job is for life? There is a deep British pleasure in watching the Frogs riot in Paris but perhaps, and it’s only a small perhaps, but perhaps they’re right.

Maybe the cravenly entitled students and the lazy, fat, nose-thumbing unions are more right than wrong. All market societies work on a balance between employer and employee, between what one can get away with and the other will put up with. It’s a pendulum that swings hither and thither; perhaps now it’s too much in the favour of business. The whole first world is having China and India held up as a dreadful competitive warning.

But why should we put up with part-time self-employment for performance-related pay, longer hours and shorter holidays, worry over nipped pensions, threadbare healthcare — all because business needs an edge to compete? Many professions and trades are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. Most company directors are an awful lot better off.

Only 36% of French people actually agree with the concept of a free market economy. They believe it’s not the purpose of a modern liberal democracy to make a few of its citizens exceedingly rich by making everyone else compete with the most desperate workforces that business can find.

While you snigger at the woolly-headed, retro Sixties foolishness of that concept, just consider for a moment that the French, for all their protection, restrictions, compromises, wasteful practices, exemptions, lies and backhanders, are still more productive than us and have a higher standard of living.

There is an alternative to a free market economy or a command economy, to the eternal sumo wrestling of management and labour. It’s the French way and it involves looking the other way, of blustering and cowardice. It’s not pretty or admirable but it does ask the fundamental question about what the purpose of this whole damned nation state business is. Is it to be ambitious or content?