Paris rubbish collectors haven’t really been on strike since 1944, when the Germans left. It only looks that way.
Uncollected rubbish with its thousands of pallets has turned the city into mountainous terrain dotted with malodorous hills up to four meters high. That’s 13 feet, give or take.
Mercifully, that change to the urban landscape coincided with yet another round of riots engulfing the whole country and, of course, its capital. You see, French rioters have always suffered from the Herostratus syndrome, an inordinate liking of fires.
Yet a major city isn’t a forest – there is little inflammable material on open display. Hence starting a satisfying bonfire becomes a labour-intensive undertaking. Rioters have to break into restaurants and offices, toss furniture out into the street, pile it up and douse it with petrol, perhaps also kindle the fire with books, ledgers and other printed matter.
All that is eminently doable, but involving an effort, which negates one reason for riots – shirking work. However, the piles of rubbish turn arson into easy fun. Just strike a match, toss it in, and you’ll feel the same exhilaration Herostratus experienced when he burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Since rubbish hills have spread all over Paris, opportunities for indulging such passions are rife. Yet the denizens of Bordeaux showed those stuck-up Parisians how to mix business with pleasure. In addition to rubbish, they’ve set fire to the city hall. If reports are to be believed, the building burned well, thereby putting forth a strong argument for a paper-free office environment.
It’s not all fire and brimstone either. The usual business of rioting is also proceeding unabated. Tens of thousands of rioters close ranks to confront the police, who respond with tear gas barrages and baton charges.
The defenders are much more numerous, what with their number reaching six digits in Paris alone. But the attackers are putting their technological advantages to good use, and it’s touch and go for the time being. After all, most rioters are old hands at this sort of thing. They come equipped with gas masks and home-made shields, making their defences so much sturdier.
Meanwhile, filling stations are running dry all over France, especially in Brittany, Normandy and around Paris. However, reports that the shortages are caused by too much petrol being used to start bonfires and burn public buildings ought to be dismissed as malicious rumours. The real cause is massive strikes, which can be described as incendiary only figuratively.
Usually, rioters run out of gas, as it were, within a couple of days. This time they are showing much greater staying power, what with the fun entering its ninth day and still going strong.
So far the casualty numbers are approximately equal, with 172 rioters arrested and 149 security personnel injured. Yet chaos reigns, and the pendulum can both swing either way and increase its amplitude.
Meanwhile, the country is suffering economic damage. Ports and airports are blocked, train services are disrupted by people having a well-deserved rest on the tracks. In short, rioting is the only business proceeding as normal.
As a result, Penelope and I have found ourselves in the same boat as Charles and Camilla. (Let me emphasise that I’m in no way implying any other parity between the two couples.) The royal couple were planning to visit Paris and Versailles this Sunday, whereas we planned to decamp for France Sunday week. Both plans are now under review if not yet in disarray.
“It’s not the right time,” warned Jean-Luc Melenchon, and I was fairly sure he was addressing King Charles and his consort, not Penelope and me. That the leader of France’s loony Left confirmed by saying: “Mr King, listen, we have nothing against you here, but you’re the king of the English – that’s your business – but you should stay away from Versailles”.
Comrade Melenchon is clearly unfamiliar with the facts of royal life. Mister King? In French the proper form of address is either votre majésté or sire. Our monarch isn’t one of those piddling Mr Presidents – and neither is he the king of just the English. He is the King of the United Kingdom, which, in addition to England, also includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Yet Comrade Melenchon can be forgiven his lapses of knowledge and etiquette. He, along with the entire French Republic, comes from a tradition where monarchs find themselves on the receiving end of the guillotine, not deference.
That, I believe, explains the frequency and ferocity of riots and other demonstrations of civil unrest in France. The professed reason for them is immaterial: rioting is the sole reason for riots, just as the murder of masses is the sole reason for mass murder.
In this case, the pretext appears to be trivial: Manny Macron has raised the pension age from 62 to 64, which is hardly tantamount to enslaving the population. The French aren’t exactly overworked by our standards.
They work about 25 per cent fewer man-hours annually, and it’s a tribute to their productivity that they still manage to turn out about the same GDP. Offices typically knock off at lunchtime on Friday, and the whole country is on holiday throughout August (toute la France est en vacances has become national folklore). If the French were forced to take just two or three weeks off every year, they’d burn the whole country, not just some rubbish and the odd city hall.
The ringleaders of the current festivities explain that their problem isn’t what Macron did, but that he did it without parliamentary vote.
It has to be said, however, that at other times the French attachment to parliamentary democracy is rather understated. Half the time the president practically rules by decree, and no one minds. And you’ll find very few committed democrats among rioters anywhere.
What we see here is something else: it’s the country’s political DNA coming to the fore and overriding the constitutional documents whose cultural impact is minimal. The French republic started with fire, barricades, civil war, regicide, mass murder of whole classes. Such heredity is difficult to live down, even with the best of intentions.
That’s why, rather than airing their grievances in a letter to the local MP, the French take to the streets at the slightest provocation, no matter how trivial. They don’t need a real reason. They need a ready outlet for innate passions.
We still haven’t decided if we are going to France in 10 days. Let’s wait and see – and hope the French will go back to the more traditional methods of garbage disposal.