It’s tempting to say that the French have all the fun, but that’s not quite true.
We have our fair share too. But ours is sedate British fun, lacking the son et lumière pizzazz of barricades, tear gas, fires and stun grenades.
The French have all that and what do we get? Only dark hints that perhaps the Tory party has been living off the proceeds of prostitution.
And yes, Mrs May is always good value, this time tying her apron to our hearts with the same strings in a humbly triumphant Brexit letter. Looking increasingly like a Russian babushka at her samovar, Mrs May is proud of her unwavering fortitude that has secured, for some time at any rate, our grip on Merseyside, Shropshire and Chelsea Cloisters.
A bit tame compared to the show put up in the centre of Paris by the gilets jaunes, backed up by the CRS chorus line, wouldn’t you say? Billowing smoke, raging fires, cars overturned, shop windows smashed, barricades going up, clouds of tear gas – we’ve got a lot to learn from the French when it comes to urban entertainment.
When the British seek a redress of grievances, they write to their MP, swear, then go down the pub and have a pint. I don’t know what the gilets jaunes are on, but their protest is rather more robust.
Perhaps it’s time to disabuse the French of a widespread misapprehension. They always mock our class distinctions, juxtaposing them to the égalité boasted on their public buildings.
In fact, we have nothing even remotely approaching their cleft between the metropolitan, predominantly Paris, elite and the rest of the country.
No doubt that a grocer in Merseyside (which Mrs May’s formidable negotiating prowess has secured for Britain) lives a different life from the owners, and especially guests, of Chelsea Cloisters.
It’s also possible that he views them with seething resentment, while they view him with mild disdain. But such feelings are usually enveloped in a puffy fog of British placidity, rather than the red mist of French exuberance.
The Us-Them divide does exist, but it has neither the depth nor the width one observes in France. In this case, though the gilets jaunes aren’t the type of people I’d often see at my dinner table, they do have a legitimate grievance – or rather a legitimate pretext for the underlying resentment.
At a time when the price of crude oil has been going down, Macron’s government has steadily increased the price of diesel by 23 per cent, with another 6.5 per cent hike planned for January.
In addition, the epiphany that diesel fumes are more harmful than carbon monoxide after all has inspired Manny Macron to threaten phasing out all diesel cars within a couple of years, forcing the owners to buy newer and dearer vehicles.
Now about 77 per cent of all cars in France are diesel, which is, not coincidentally, the proportion of the French who support the protesters. What we observe here is a clash of aspirations.
The metropolitan elite so ably led and personified by Manny wants to save the planet. The rest of the French want to make ends meet. These are the two electrodes sending sparks all over France.
As someone who does most of his driving in provincial France, and in a diesel car at that, I can testify that, in the universal absence of public transport, one needs to do at least 1,000 miles a month there just to survive.
Thus the difference between the diesel price as it will be in January, 2019, and as it was in January, 2018, adds up to something like £40 a month – and that’s before new cars have to be bought. In a vast, rapidly depopulating countryside subsisting on peanuts this punches a gaping hole in people’s livelihood.
But it’s not just the money that rankles, I’m sure. It’s the snide, patronising indifference to their plight that the people detect in the metropolitan bobos (bourgeois bohemians).
People may tolerate robbery, but they’ll never forgive contempt. And in Manny’s latest attack on their lives they detect both.
As to the manner in which such feelings tend to be expressed in France, the clue again comes from the slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité. (I think it would make more sense to replace egalité with Aligoté there, but no one has asked me.)
The triad serves as a reminder that modern France started life as a revolutionary republic, with barricades firmly encoded into her DNA. Such a genetic defect is impossible to cure or live down – it’s only sometimes possible to mitigate for a while.
This points at the fundamental difference between what I call (in my Democracy as a Neocon Trick) an organic state and one that’s an ideological contrivance.
To see which is which we can apply a simple test that would work in most cases: unlike the origin of a contrived state, the origin of an organic one can’t be pinpointed to a single historical event or, for that matter, any precise moment in time.
We can say with certainty that the American republic started in 1776, the French one in 1789, the unified German state in 1871, the Soviet one in 1917 (or more accurately in 1923, when the Soviet Union officially came into being), Israel in 1948 and so forth. But when did the English state begin? We can’t be sure.
The Norman conquest? Magna Carta? The Civil War? The Restoration? The Glorious Revolution?
Advocates of the primacy of any such event will present their arguments; we may agree with some and dismiss others. But the very fact that there are many such events vying for the honour, and that they’re scattered all over history, points at the organic nature of the English state.
It would take another, longer, book to establish the causal relationship between the national character of the people and the political dispensation they produce. And deciding which was primary and which was secondary would be even harder.
But it would take a frivolous interpretation of political history not to see the continuum uniting the Paris barricades c. 1789 with those c. 2018. And then perhaps we could ponder the long-term pernicious effect of all modern revolutions, regardless of how well they may seem to have turned out.
There’s always a price to pay in the end, political, cultural, civilisational. And human.