Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Distant Shouting Coming Closer


Walking in the Tuileries on a Sunday evening. Sunshine at last but a blast of cold wind from the north means heavy sweaters and a jacket. Blue iris everywhere, colouring the light, scenting the wind; chestnut trees are cropped into disciplined box shapes. Ducklings are huddled under their mothers’ wings. Tranquility? Alas no.
On the other side of the river, near the Assembly Nationale, raucous voices raised, police whistles blowing. Sirens rend the air where at 7pm church bells should be heard.
This was a march by conservatives, many of them Catholics, against gay marriage. Two bills have been passed and were enacted this week. But that is not all. This week, also, Paris was the focus of European concerns about jobless youth and its consequences for political stability.
Gay marriage protests are just the tip of the iceberg. Daily life is now full of tensions and somber realities. And the man up top who carries the burden is barely up to the task. He stood at a lectern next to David Cameron, in Paris last week, as the latter spoke following the Woolwich attack. The cameras kept returning to shots of Fran├žoise Hollande who could not keep still while his guest spoke. He was flapping papers and twitching, his facial expression that of someone who really needed to go to the lavatory. Perhaps that was his excuse? I think there are other reasons for his nervousness. The pressures on him are domestic, international and personal. And he is only a mediocrity, who fell into the job of Presidential candidate and fell into the job of President, unprepared. He is not capable of dealing with the challenges facing France.
So he has the IMF and Germany telling him what to do. He has an embarrassing legal position regarding his “First Lady”. He has difficult questions to answer concerning his own financial and fiscal declarations. Above all he has insuperable domestic problems, which, according to a book out this week could bring about a revolution in France.
The raucous voices raised over gay marriage would seem dulcet murmurings compared to what might happen if the population snaps out of its torpor and reacts against the failure of Hollande’s government to solve the country’s economic and political problems.
Jaques Attali, distinguished author; founder and first director of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, was Mitterand’s youthful advisor who suggested bringing Hollande into the President’s team and who much later played a role in Sarkhozy’s government. He voices the fears expressed for over a year among thinking French people in his new book “Urgences Francaises” (French Urgencies). He is not alone. Yesterday in Paris, (May 28th) the German Finance minister expressed the growing fears that pervade EU nations. Rising youth unemployment rates, 26 % in France but over 50% in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, are not only among the uneducated but also the qualified children of the executive class. Past failure to stimulate private enterprise, to support the growth of small and medium sized enterprises and the reliance on social benefits instead are the cause of political panic among Eurozone leaders.
Petty little bureaucrat that he is, Hollande’s answer is that the eurozone should work towards a joint economic government with its own budget that could take on specific projects including tackling youth unemployment. The ice age will have arrived before that notion get’s to first base.
Jaques Attali’s book encapsulates the entire frightful scenario with the brilliant logic of a man who has been watching from inside French government for so long that he knows better than anyone what grave problems and un-negotiable obstacles exist in France--a nation always socially and economically divided with few escalators for upward mobility: violent revolution has been the only means of reconstruction historically for a nation unable to gradually reform its rigid administrative and fiscal structures based on its irreconcilable class divide.
Youth unemployment across the eurozone threatens that ‘peace in our time’ that the EU’s idealistic creators imagined would prevent future conflicts on our continent. Even Hollande acknowledges that people are turning away from the European concept. Meanwhile, welfare is the opium of the people. Take it away and the psychological, fiscal and traditionally opposed class conflicts will bring catastrophic revolt. Pass me a parachute.

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Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Joan of Arc Show (or No, No, No!)


May 8th is the day France commemorates the end of WW2 in 1945. On the Sunday following the 8th, traffic stops while dignitaries lay wreaths of red white and blue flowers at the foot of the gold statue of Jeanne d’Arc on horseback almost below my window. I’ll be awakened by the tootling of a trumpet playing the Marseillaise. But I have so effectively sound proofed my bedroom that this morning I emerged from my 8 hours to hear shouting.
May 1st is usually the day when the Front Nationale assembles its members around Jeanne’s statue –a symbol of French national pride--to listen to a speech by its leader Marine Le Pen.  Today, however, extremists who find Marine’s views too moderate were there. The cross roads were blocked in every direction and a relatively small group of militants were being addressed while Police Nationale stood in a line at the entrance to my street. Only a few had riot shields and their posture was relatively relaxed.
Then a more aggressive counter demo erupted. Shouting was emerging from the corner of the Place and cameras were being directed at a spot out of my line of sight and upwards. A large fire engine, ladder ready, maneuvered into position while another stood to the rear of the statue. The building on that corner houses some state offices and left wing union members were occupying its balconies. Police reinforcements now began running around and donning riot helmets. Is this unusual? No. The Joan of Arc Show often turns to riots.
I’m writing about it because a few days ago a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and one of the leaders of the plot that removed Margaret Thatcher from office in 1990, publicly recanted on his former pro-European position. In a long article in The Times, hemadvocated that Britain get out of the EU. It is now 23 plus years since the historic moment in the Commons when Lawson’s co-conspirator Geoffrey Howe made his speech accusing Thatcher of breaking the bats with which her side were playing cricket in the negotiations to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher did not want the uk to join that precursor to the creation of the single currency. Her famous speech in which she said “No, no, no” to any concessions that would erode British sovereignty was the cause of her downfall. John Major who took office that same month (November 1990) after being elected as the new Conservative leader continued to follow the dream of the single currency until the UK was thrown out of the ERM by its failure to keep to the conditions. Base rates of 17% were avoided and the country was rescued from the folly propounded by Chancellor Lawson. But so soon after the bells from Thatcher’s funeral have ceased to toll, her so-called “Brilliant” Chancellor (who resigned in November 1989 and was replaced by John Major) has emerged from the closet as an advocate of British exit from the EU.
Does the little scrap at the Joan of Arc statue have any bearing on this? Only too clearly. The extreme right demanding stringent limits on immigration are not only the French Front Nationale. Their sentiments are echoed in other EU countries including the UK. EU policies permit free migration from poorer to richer member states, while failing to prevent illegal immigration. This means the raucous shouts of the extremists will be heard increasingly in every EU capital.
The beautiful floral wreaths that pay tribute to the French and Allied fallen in WW2 and whose touching messages bring thoughts of peace in our time, will not survive the coming conflicts. The Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, the unemployment crisis, the lack of EU democracy will bring worse than this ritual piece of French street politics.
No no no? But yes, yes, yes, the uk should start dismantling the chains that bind it to a dangerously insolvent, and frighteningly divided European Union.

For more background on the Lawson-Thatcher battle over the ERM see Chapter 1 of my biography of John Major available from Amazon and other Internet bookshops (Macdonald and Futura). And for details of Major’s role in the Black Wednesday crisis when Britain left the ERM in 1991, see the Postscript to the paperback edition (Futura).