[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 7 January 2006, 12:25 GMT
France's 'pursuit of harmony'

By Allan Little
BBC World Affairs correspondent

In his New Year message to his people, French President Jacques Chirac talked of intensifying the fight for jobs and financing social welfare reform, but do these plans rest easy with the government's devotion to national cohesion?

Striking bus drivers in November 2005
Marseille residents recently endured a 46-day public transport strike

They are fine, festive affairs, these frequent marches and demonstrations, and they bring a kind of gaiety to the streets of Paris.

There is an air of national solidarity about them too.

When the transport workers go on strike even the stranded commuters express sympathy!

French train drivers still receive something called La Prime De Charbon, the coal bonus, first awarded in the age of steam.

And the drivers of the SNCF national railway system will go to the barricades to defend it decades after they last set foot on a steam train.

For the coal bonus is just one small example of what is known in France as "les avantages acquis", the accrued benefits (or accumulated rights) which the French believe have been fought for over decades, which represent social progress and hallmark the French way of life.

And which must never be given up.

Fighting themselves

The last demonstration I attended as the BBC's Paris correspondent was a march through Paris by the nation's family doctors: the general practitioners.

French President Jacques Chirac delivering his New Year message
Mr Chirac may struggle to push through his reforms

I fell into conversation with a young GP from Bordeaux.

She had decided to join the strike and come to Paris to march to defend this most valued of all the accrued benefits: the best health service in the world (though also one of the most expensive).

French GPs are not paid well.

She must feel very strongly to give up a day's pay, I asked.

"We don't lose a day's pay," she said, "it's our right to strike - it would be an outrage if the government stopped our pay for exercising our right."

Then what about the cost of the journey to Paris and her overnight stay?

"The union pays that," she said.

And where does the union get its funding?

"From the government," she adds.

I came to see that what I was reporting on was a government-funded demonstration... against the government.

There is something revealing in this, something revealing about the condition of France.

National debt

There is one conversation I have had over and over again in my time in Paris.

British friends say to me: "You keep saying the French economy is in deep trouble but look at France! Everything works: great railways, terrific health service, good schools, wonderful restaurants, a 35-hour working week. It can't be that troubled?"

France's public debt is twice the size of Britain's

It is true that if you are in work, France treats you very well, but if you are one of the 10% unemployed you live in a very different France altogether.

France loves its avantages acquis, but they become expensive and France is living beyond its means.

It has spent more than it has raised in revenue for 29 consecutive years.

Its public debt is twice the size of Britain's and every year, debt servicing (paying the interest alone) is eating more and more of the country's national budget.

But so far it has been the fate of reforming governments to be thwarted by the solidity of public opinion and the festive spirit with which public sector workers take to the streets.

Fifth republic

One frustrated right-wing member of the national assembly told me:

"We French don't do reform, we do revolution. Nothing changes until everything changes. We are on to our fifth republic and the Americans are still on their first."

There is, though, sound reason for this and it seems to me to lie in France's history.

The observer takes delight in the garden's magnificent harmony
General Charles de Gaulle

French governments have a horror of confrontation, of dividing the French against themselves.

The memory of the occupation of the 1940s lingers powerfully: the humiliation of a nation divided between collaborators and resisters.

The memory of the loss of the Algerian war is more raw still, when one million French citizens born and raised in north Africa had to be accommodated in metropolitan France.

The social upheaval brought the country dangerously close to civil conflict as recently as the 1960s.

In a book published last year, the British historian of France, Alistair Horne, quotes General de Gaulle likening French society to the geometrical arrangements of a classical French garden. "The observer takes delight," the general remarked, "in the garden's magnificent harmony."

"And that," the historian adds, "the pursuit of harmony, is what France is all about."

Blank canvas politics

This idea that there is a pact in French society, a social contract, is a kind of sacred cow in French political life.

Reform might well be urgently needed but French governments recoil from anything that endangers social harmony, national unity.

It is both admirable and debilitating.

All too often, in the French experience, it means indeed that nothing changes until everything changes.

Reform falters until everything is swept away in a revolution and the entire constitution is begun again from scratch.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific