Yesterday saw another remarkable display of this national trait, as an astonishingly broad spectrum of the French citizenry surged through the streets of Paris to express their outrage at the government's response to the economic crisis. This response has been the usual doling out of billions in public money for the fat cats who caused the crisis, coupled with increasing demands for "sacrifice" from the hoi polloi: less pay, longer hours, fewer benefits, a bleaker life for you and your children while the elite party on.
But on Thursday, an estimated 2.5 million people – blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals, educators and students, doctors and train drivers, native-born and immigrants – came out to tell the government: "We are not going to pay for the greed and corruption of the elite! Find another way!" The contrast to the stunned, herd-like reaction of the American and British publics to their governments' gorging of corrupt oligarchs with no-strings largess could not be more striking.
The outpouring on Thursday was a culmination of discontent toward the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy – known as "the American" not only for his amped-up PR style (and celebrity wife) but even more for his zeal to impose the harsh work regimen and vast social and economic inequalities of the Anglo-American model on France. He was demanding the "sacrifices" noted above long before the economic crisis began, while also constructing an ever-more power-friendly "national security state" along Anglo-American lines. As Agnes Poirier notes in the Guardian:
Sarkozy has spent his 20 months in power systematically weakening the forces that maintain the balance of power in a democracy. First, parliament: a reform being fought by the opposition aims to reduce drastically the amount of time spent debating bills, so limiting the ability of the opposition to question ministers and propose amendments - all in the name of efficiency. Second, the legal system: among Sarkozy's reforms are harsher sentences, life terms for certain mentally ill criminals and sex offenders, and the abolition of the "investigative magistrate" - the cornerstone of the French legal system since 1811. Third, education: tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs while 5,000 "truant hunters" have been created - less teaching, more policing. Fourth, information: the president has in effect created a state-appointed and state-controlled media network, while helping media baron friends carve up advertising revenues.
Sarkozy's government has also been whipping up fears of vast, secret, anarchist cabals, plotting violence and destruction. He has used the same kind of draconian "anti-terrorist" laws that have been adopted by almost all the leading "democracies" of the West to crack down on anyone who opposes the global corporatist-militarist ethos, as this Guardian story from earlier this month illustrates:
High on a bleak mountain plateau in central France, the tiny village of Tarnac is fiercely proud of its grocer's shop. A smiling lady with a perm stands behind the old-fashioned till amid shelves stocked with everything from fly-swats and fairy lights to socks and soya milk.... Posters advertise tea dances and cinema club screenings of Billy the Kid.
But the French government claims that Tarnac and its small shop are the headquarters of a dangerous cell of anarchist terrorists plotting to overthrow the state. [The] balaclava-clad police swooping to arrest suspects in Tarnac were compared by bewildered villagers to a strange, rural action movie. The government hinted that locals were too gormless to have noticed the terrorist activity in their midst. But after weeks of controversy, supporters are rising up to defend the young people of the village.
Known as the Tarnac Nine, four men and five women aged 22 to 34 are being investigated over far-left terrorism following dawn raids by police in November that targeted several addresses, including a farm with a few goats, chickens and vegetables. Those arrested include a Swiss sitcom actor, a distinguished clarinettist, a student nurse and Benjamin Rosoux, an Edinburgh University graduate who runs the grocer's shop and its adjoining bar-restaurant.
The alleged ringleader, Julien Coupat, 34, is still being held in prison despite a judge's ruling that he be released. A former business and sociology student from an affluent Parisian suburb, Coupat moved to Tarnac in search of a non-consumerist lifestyle, saying he wanted to live frugally. The poor village of 350 people is home to a growing number of young people who have escaped the city for a simple life and sense of community. Together, the newcomers ran the shop, a mobile delivery service, the restaurant, a cinema club and an informal library.
It seems that Couptat and his girlfriend -- an archaeologist -- were suspected of involvement in a series of minor vandalism incidents on France's rail lines. And how did the police tie the nefarious pair to these, er, minor incidents?
Coupat and his girlfriend had allegedly been seen by police near a train line that was later vandalised.
Ah, but there may have been ever graver sins on Coupat's hands, activities far more germane to his dramatic arrest and extra-judicial incarceration:
The couple had come to the attention of the FBI months earlier when they took part in a protest outside an army recruitment centre in New York. They and acquaintances are said to have often travelled to protests and demonstrations such as a recent protest at a European summit on immigration at Vichy.
They had trod on the sacred Homeland soil -- to protest the righteous expansion of God's own war machine! But wait, there's even more!
French police say Coupat was the author of an anonymous tract against capitalism and modern society, The Coming Insurrection. The Paris prosecutor said the group was intent on armed struggle and used the farm in Tarnac as a "meeting point and place of indoctrination" for "violent action". But France's Human Rights League, opposition politicians and intellectuals criticised the arrests as an attack on civil liberties and an abuse of France's draconian anti-terrorist laws. Defence lawyers say there is no evidence for terrorist charges.
But what do the locals say about this alleged author of anonymous pamphlets who was allegedly once seen somewhere near a railway line that was vandalized at some point after he was gone?
Chopping wood outside his house, André Filippin, 65, said: "It's ridiculous. I see them at the shop every day of the year, I help them with their drains, they help me. They are people who came to Corrèze to change their lives, to help people. We don't view them as terrorists here."
...In the bar adjoining Tarnac's grocery store, as farmers tucked into their lunch, Jérôme, 28, who moved from the city seeking an alternative lifestyle in Tarnac, said he knew those who had been arrested and had stayed at their farm. "The portrayal of this place has been absurd. The farm is a very collective place and the village has a convivial atmosphere, doors are always open. They say we lived a secretive existence hidden away in the woods. That's not true - the farm is beside the road. They talk of a 'group' when there is no group. They say there was a ringleader ... but there is no boss here, that's an absurdity. It's against our whole thinking."
It is this spirit – a spirit of defiance and tolerance, with its recognition of a shared humanity and its respect for individual destiny, a spirit stretching across generational, ideological, professional and regional lines – that found such vigorous expression in Paris on Thursday.
I wonder if it's available for export? I know at least two nations of my intimate acquaintance who could damn sure use some of it.
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This story was published on January 31, 2009.