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Europe diary: French protests
30 March 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reports from the streets of Paris with student protesters, interviews a globalisation author and considers whether The Hague should be capitalised.

The diary is published every Thursday.


French student protesters (photo: Paula Braconnot)
Good humour is often overshadowed (photo: Paula Braconnot)
I'm on the left bank of the Seine with Parisian students, who are standing in the pouring rain waiting to set off on the march against the new law that would allow bosses to fire young people at will during their first two years in the job. Despite the awful weather, the mood is good, they are serving up soup from a big tureen and grilling sausages on a makeshift griddle. A young woman goes around shouting "Vive la soupe!".

Then suddenly there's one of those moments that sweeps through crowds. A human wave rushes into the university shouting and arguing. The trouble is over some students who want to work not strike. Almost manically the protesters build a makeshift barricade against a gate which is already locked and no one is trying to open. A large wire cutter is produced and a fence chopped up. Chairs and concrete blocks are piled on top of it before the students return to their soup.

Like many of the students, I peel off before any real trouble starts, but I'm not sure blaming it on a few isolated hoodlums quite captures the nature of French street protest. But Paula, the student who took this picture, says she wanted to capture a mood of humour and solidarity that often gets ignored.


While in a tradition that stretches from the Revolution itself through 1968 these demos have a very different impetus. Then students daubed situationalist slogans like "The beach is below the cobblestones" Today students fear the jagged concrete poking through the sand.

Perhaps their slogan should be: "What do we want?"

"A job for life!"

"When do we want it?"

"After eight years of study!"

But if a lot has changed in 40 years there's an odd parallel in the fashionably dominant ideology. The prophets of globalisation, like those of Marxism, believe that what they preach is not only right, but is also inevitable. As with Marxists, they believe that anyone standing in its path will simply be washed away by history, until all the world basks in a single benign system. In the case of global market economics it is indeed very hard to see how one country could follow a different path but economic determinism still makes me queasy.


Perhaps its this assumption of inevitability that has led many commentators to assume de Villepin has the broad support of the bosses. They doubtless back the spirit of his stand but perhaps aren't quite so keen on his tactics. He didn't prepare the ground at all: hence the talk now of "consultation". The Paris Chamber of Commerce has no official position on the new law and can only produce one company to say it is a great thing.

In fact, being able to sack young workers only squeezes the problem further down the toothpaste: once they're 26 they've got an unassailable job for life. And there's an argument real flexibility is as much about labour costs as the ability to fire people. Which is probably why Nicholas Sarkozy has a much more radical plan in his back pocket and is declaring that the spirit of France is the spirit of consultation. The real fight is for the presidency and its no wonder rioting fills the political vacuum.


Probably the most interesting interview I do in Paris is with Philippe d'Ibrane who is about to publish a book on globalisation called "L'Etrangete Francaise", the French Oddity.

This really isn't just someone being awkward, but the product of a different system that sees the customer as incidental

He argues that in the 19th Century each nation tried to come to terms with, and humanise, what he calls "wage slavery" in its own way. Anglo Saxons based their faith on equality before the contract.

But the French invested in the internal dignity and order of the job itself. I'm sure this is right: I think back a couple of months ago to the waiter in a rather bog standard restaurant in a fairly down market chain hotel in Strasbourg who told our team that we could not have a quick meal in his establishment, it would take at least an hour and a half.

But we pleaded we had to be back at work much before then. Why couldn't we work normal hours like normal people and enjoy our meal? This really isn't just someone being awkward, but the product of a different system that sees the customer as incidental.


A correspondent tells me off for writing "at The Hague" rather than "in The Hague". Sorry, I'm in the wrong. But it sets me off thinking why on earth we invite trouble by using this formulation. Why not translate the whole lot "The Hedge" or better still leave it as "Den Haag"?

We don't talk about motor racing at The Mans or the Sunset strip in The Angeles. But this raises the whole delicate question of what we call foreign cities and why. We call what used to be Peking Beijing and what used to be Bombay Mumbai because that is what they are called by their inhabitants. But why not Roma or Napoli ? Or Paris, if you see what I mean.

Please send us your comments on issues raised in the diary, using the postform below.

I was in a restaurant last week in Vincennes (near Paris) and ordered tuna fish and rice; only it came after 30 minutes and it was half cooked. After realising this I called the waiter who took it back to the chef. However , the chef exclaimed to the waiter that I couldn't have it back, threw it in the bucket and told him to pass on the message that I should know that Tuna is cooked 'medium rare'. I was forced to order asparagus instead!
John Hall, Paris , France

Regarding the naming of foreign cities (or people for that matter), there is a tradition in Europe that started with the mindset of racial superiority and continues with laziness, predominant in the EU countries that occupied most of the world. Basically the mind-set is, we'll call you what we want to call you because it's easier for us, who cares what you call yourself. This isn't limited to the English, although they're probably the worst at it.
ramO, Sheffield, UK

I really can't see the French, for example, not used Londres or Angleterre so why is a double standard being applied to English speakers in suggesting that we only use the indigenous pronunciation of place names? Or is this the usual "Anglo-Saxon" [to use a French stereotype] bashing?
Peter, Chelmsford, UK

The French are fighting at the margins over crumbs as their entire civilization declines and may yet implode. If this is the best the French students can do, they should demand their tuition money back as they clearly haven't learned the principles of economics which govern all living things including for the time being, themselves and their nation. What we have seen so far in recent weeks and months is just the tip of the iceberg and a first taste of the storm to come.
Mark, USA

What the hell is wrong with France? On the one hand you have poor immigrant kids rioting against their hopeless employment situation. Then the government tries to do something about and what do you get? Rich privileged kids rioting against losing the very benefits making their fellow citizens poor.
Filip Rabuzin, Brisbane, Australia

The cartoonist Pat Oliphant had a great cartoon in the Washington Post two days ago suggesting that the French want "Liberte, Egalite, Securite" I guess the poor dears would perish in the competitive American world; hence, the decline of the French nation.
Martin Brown, Littleton, Colorado, USA

Being French myself and soon to be mature student, ie well over 26 when I finish my degree, I totally understand strike, having giving up on France myself ages ago, I admire French students for their perseverance and faith that they will be able to achieve anything - apart from missing classes that could end up in them falling their academic year and end up being 26-year-old when they graduate and finally not given a chance for a job... vive la france
Audrey Saint- jacque, Edinburgh

At least the French can revolt and argue, scream, have a mini revolution if they wish. In this country, the US, all anti-government, left wing, way out of the mainstream, kind of thoughts, you will likely be hunted down by the government. Most of the western world, UK and US are so concerned only about themselves. Living here as an American, I am embarrassed to say that and the clear fact working here is impossible to make a living at all. Most people are under the poverty line here, working wherever they can making nothing compared to the cost of living around the USA.

The only way is to have two or three jobs, no medical benefits at all and of course no savings. It seems like it's all been taken over by yuppies and the elite.
Tony, San Francisco, CA USA

Economic activity creates jobs, not governments and governments that attempt to provide lifetime security to their people by forcing businesses to ruin themselves are run by fools. The European dream of economic security for all with 35 hour work weeks and six weeks of vacation has ended and no amount of rioting in the streets will revive it.
mhr, burbank, ca usa

How in the world do these French students pay for their college? They apparently can't work their way through school. Unemployment will undoubtedly stay high in France with their anti-free market laws, so perhaps they should consider discouraging college and higher education since there aren't enough jobs there anyway.

In the United States, and other free market countries (comparatively speaking) people like me can work their way through college, and then be hired or fired as the market and their individual skills dictate. And if I don't like working for someone else, I can start my own business. Vive la difference!
John W. Smith, Orlando, Florida

It's the eternal dream of money for nothing. It hasn't worked anywhere over a long period of time, and now that it's not working in France (granted, it had a pretty good run as these things go), no wonder people are upset. But that doesn't square the circle, because nothing can.
Respondon, USA

This issue over Den Haag is a bit of a non-issue really. As has been pointed out, many languages have their own names for it, and further, as a Spanish student, they would seem to be even worse than ourselves and the French when it comes to corrupting foreign place names! Marsella, Niza (Nice) and Burdeos (Bordeaux) all spring to mind.
Thomas Madden, Manchester, UK

My goodness - a thinking correspondent. Keep it up Mark. Economic determinism doesn't make me queasy - it scares the pants off me - just like all forms of fascism.

When are people going to wake up to the fact that despite the rhetoric - Bush and Blair can never be on the side of "civilisation" and "democracy". They themselves have already destroyed both international law and the democratic principle - by selectively using violence against all those whom they disagree with.

I agree, France is one of the last bastions of civilisation in Europe - and if the students fail there -then, in time, everybody else will end up in the firing line in the fight against the destruction of the social order instigated by western governments (and the so called "international community") as part of the downhill race to the lowest possible wage globally.
Trevor Batten, Manila

I think the reason France is not like the UK and the US is recent as much as anything else. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan redefined employment in their respective country in favour of employers. In France this did not happen. Hence, the family friendly policies and better standard of working here (it is easier to work and have a family in France).

I think the plethora of French books on the French crisis are striking for their poverty of ideas and lack of imagination. They focus too much on immigration and not on core problems like work, infrastructure, and the interdependence of the world we live in. I think the era of the great French intellectual is definitely over, sadly.
Gaverne Bennett, Les Ulis

The objection seems to be not to the use of an English name for The Hague but to the use of the preposition "at", implying that the city is a remote hick joint, rather than "in" which would qualify it as a renowned metropolis.
Paul Adams, Geneva, Switzerland

I'm amused that you associate the French malaise with a waiter in Strasbourg who couldn't serve you lunch because it would take too long. However, were you to try a down-market hotel in Birmingham, (a town situated at the heart of an Anglo-Saxon capitalist system), at roughly the same time and you may find that the kitchens have closed already. The difference being that there the waiter/waitress passing on the bad news is probably being paid a fraction of what his/her Gallic cousin is being paid and with a lot less social protection.

Now, take Belgium as an example - or Flanders where I live - a croque monsieur or spaghetti is readily available at most hours in most establishments and at an affordable rate. Flanders is arguably one of the most over-regulated markets anywhere in the world. Nevertheless it allows for a system of readily available snacks. Its why I like living here so much.
Kathleen Garnett, Leuven, Belgium

Prodi reminds me of the granddad in the Simpsons. Italy has been in an economic crisis for approx the last twenty years it would seem. I think this is due to the family business situation, everyone looks out only for themselves as they declare an income less than half of what they really earn in an attempt to pay less taxes. I admittedly live in an extremely well off part of this region (which contrasts starkly with Naples) but all I hear are people moaning whilst making lots and lots of money. There is no cohesion socially re: the economy and everyone is obsessed with the labels of fascism and communism, which just hurts the political life in Italy.
Josie, Campania, Italy

Just an addition to the (non-)translation of foreign names. I've always been fascinated by the British insistence on referring to one of Germany's Bundesliga football clubs as Bayern Munich. Why this bastardisation instead of Bavaria Munich or Bayern Munchen (sorry, no umlauts available on my computer)? And I suppose the Bundesliga should be the federal league if consistency is sought and the use of English terms preferred.
Fredrik Ljone Holst, Oslo, Norway

Regarding the comment on the internal dignity and order of the job. On a practical level this philosophy manifests itself under the statement France is run for the benefit of the people that run it, not for the benefit of the people that use it, French or otherwise.
Chris Floyd, UK

The French economy is too protectionist with too much power for workers over boss. Margaret Thatcher did it for the best of our economy. A strong French leader needs to do the same. This job does make it easier for firing people but it also makes it easier for people to be taken on. A job is not for life anymore because of the ages people live to, to keep that promise would be a lie. A free market means freer people if you don't subsidise it and put barriers on, this is just a barrier to free market economics
Stephen Hoffman, st albans , England

I have lived as a British expat in France, near Paris for 19 years. When I left England in the '80s, the UK was in a bad state: unemployment, and so on. I was in the UK, in Wakefield during the miners strike. Now, after being here so long, I can see why the people are fighting for this. I have been struggling to find work here, although having a very good professional experience, there is always something "not right" with your experience, or you don't have the "right" diploma.

When the students will leave university, with many years studying, you will find them being told by employers that they have no experience, therefore, the CPE, where the wages will surely be very low and with the possibility of being kicked out at any time in the passing two years, by unscrupulous bosses, and there are many! And after working years in studies, many French youngsters leave France to work in the UK. Often I chat with the youngsters here, and when you hear that they have sent off 150 CVs for a low level job, with nothing back, it's just another reason to fuel the fire.
Jonathan Simmonds, montreuil, france

Regarding The Hague: the same place has often been called by different names in different languages, especially if it is an important place. We are neither surprised nor confused when the French refer to Londres, Edimbourg and Cantorbery. Since Latin is, or ought to be, Top Language, mustn't the name that ultimately represents the essence of the Dutch city be Haga Comitis (The Count's Hedge)?
Nick, Edmonton, Canada

The students are right to protest. This is pure discrimination. Worst off are those over 26 of age without a job. Who will give these 26-plussers a job if an employer can get a disposable employee instead? It's all too accommodating for de Villepin's electorate: older people with a job. Why discriminate between different age groups. Any law should always apply to all citizens equally, no? Egalite? Isn't that the basis of democracy? Back to the drawing board and create a level playing field within France please.
Chien de Rue, Brussels Belgium

Only the politicians, tourists and the BBC call it Mumbai, the inhabitants still enthusiastically use Bombay. I suspect the same goes for Peking!
Paul, Glasgow

Didn't Churchill have this problem? He said that we should pronounce countries and cities the same way they are pronounced by their citizens.

I think "at The Hague" is perfectly acceptable. You quite rightly point out that "The Hedge" is the correct translation. However, you are wrong to call The Hague a city. The clue is in the real name "'s-Gravenhage" - this means "the Count's Hedge". I may have 450,000 neighbours, but we actually live in a village. Only for 48 hours in 1811 was The Hague a city - Napoleon refused to stay in a village and so a temporary charter was granted. In the Netherlands today only Amsterdam has a charter which is why, although The Hague is the seat of government, Amsterdam is the Capital City
Andy Bugden, 's-Gravenhage, NL

The writer and his team could have opted for their much vaunted (and culturally stereotyped) Anglo-Saxon "freedom of choice", and gone off to a McDonalds or a Burger King in Strasbourg instead of pleading with a restaurateur to change his establishment to fit their not-particularly-reasonable demands. The customers at fast food establishments are incidental too... and the food isn't very good either. As far as the English way of satisfying customers... Fawlty Towers didn't take place in France.
Anthony Skaggs, New York, NY USA

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