World·Analysis

Madness and nightmares: How springtime in Paris became a season of discontent: Don Murray

Paris in the spring could be a poet's dream, but not this year, with soccer madness, labour fury and security nightmares spilling into the streets of the French capital, Don Murray writes.

Security worries, labour fury and political desperation hang over French capital

Police officers in civilian dress demonstrate in Place de la Republique in Paris on May 18, 2016. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

Ah, Paris in the spring.

The crowded cafés, the disdainful waiters, the bridges besieged by tourist love padlocks, the hordes surging through the Louvre, pausing briefly to take selfies in front of barely-looked-at art.

A poet's dream.

But not this year. After France's winter of discontent, this is the spring of Euro soccer madness. Millions of raucous fans will invade the country to cheer the national teams of Europe at games stretching from June 10 to July 10.

Coming barely seven months after the co-ordinated murderous attacks, including one at Paris's biggest stadium, attacks that killed almost 200 people in November, the Euro tournament is a security nightmare.

A gagged youth attends a demonstration against French labour law in Paris on May 12, 2016. France's government decided to bypass parliament and impose a relaxation of the country's protective labour laws by decree, using article 49.3 of the French constitution. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

And it's not the only nightmare for France's leaders.

For weeks, the French government has faced demonstrations and strikes in which students, teachers, civil servants and industrial workers have paralyzed schools, hamstrung public transport, the train network and airports, blocked access to oil refineries, slowed the output of the country's nuclear plants and generally caused mid-level havoc.

Details, details

The cause of this fury? A bill to loosen the country's stringent and highly protective labour laws.

It's a safe bet that few actually understand the details of the proposed law. 

It set out to make it easier for companies and bosses to hire and fire. 

It will also loosen the rules now limiting the working week in France to 35 hours.

The bill was born of desperation. President François Hollande had solemnly promised on taking office four years ago to bring down France's high unemployment rate. He even said he wouldn't run again if the rate didn't come down.

For four years that promise mocked him as unemployment stood at more than 10 per cent and even rose.  Finally, two months ago, it started to drop.

Protesters march during a demonstration against French labour law reform in Paris on May 19, 2016. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

The bill was almost a last throw of the dice just over a year before the next presidential election. But coming from a socialist leader, it infuriated union leaders, academics and even many of his own left-wing MPs, who saw it as a betrayal, a sellout to the bosses.

And so the labour upheavals. They've had an effect — the bill has already been watered down. But the battle of strikes and street demonstrations goes on.

Part of this is a phenomenon known in France as 'toujours plus!' Always more. In other words, any social group always wants to increase the benefits it's gained and never wants to give them up, even for the common good.

'Cult of revolution'

Now mix in what can only be called the 'cult of revolution' in France. 

The French have had not one but three successful ones in the past 225 years, in 1789, 1830 and 1848, success being measured by the overthrow of the established order. 

They mark them with monuments and florid speeches. And that doesn't include several other violent street parties that failed to ignite into full-fledged revolution.

A whole aging generation remembers with nostalgia what they call "les événements de 68" — the events of 1968, when students and workers brought the country to a complete halt for a month and almost overthrew the government of Charles de Gaulle.

Riot police confront demonstrators protesting police violence and against French labour law reform at Place de la Republique in Paris on May 18, 2016. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

The nasty truth at the heart of these periodic blowups is that the voice of the street is far more effective than the voice of parliament. 

Governments blithely ignore MPs, even their own, in the monarchical republic set up by de Gaulle almost 60 years ago. But they tremble and capitulate when challenged by the crowd.

Just ask the two men vying for the presidential candidacy of Les Républicains, the main right-wing party. 

One is Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, and the second is Alain Juppé, a former French prime minister. 

Short attention spans

Both tried to introduce reforms — labour reforms in the case of Sarkozy, educational reforms for Juppé. Both beat an undignified retreat when the crowds shouted "No!" Juppé's retreat was so chaotic that he lost his job as prime minister.

The fact that they're still in politics, and in the race for the presidency, suggests the crowd has a short attention span.

Rather, for many, revolt in the streets is part of the French spice of life. 

In the midst of industrial unrest, French President Francois Hollande went to Douaumont Necropolis and Ossuary, where he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel lit the eternal flame during a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the battle of Verdun. (Mathieu Cugnot/Reuters)

A French friend surveyed the days of marches and strikes recently and said, "It's a civil war out there." The tone wasn't despairing but rather excited, upbeat.

This isn't war, and our friend knew it, but it is an assault on a very weakened leader. François Hollande sits barely above 15 per cent in favourability ratings in opinion polls.

With his back to the wall and faced with the cult of revolution, Hollande is clinging to the "cult of Verdun."

It was exactly 100 years ago that this titanic First World War battle between the French and the Germans began.  It lasted nine months and killed 300,000 men. Verdun occupies a similar place in French mythology to Vimy Ridge in the Canadian imagination.

The Germans attacked and the French rallying cry was "on ne passe pas" — they won't get through. 

Just another conflict

Hollande clings to the same message. He says he won't make any more compromises, and he reinforced his message by going to Verdun to stand with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the midst of the French industrial unrest.

The French president seems eerily certain of his strength in this labour battle, which he dismisses as a "simple traditional conflict."

French CGT trade union general secretary Philippe Martinez, centre, attends a demonstration against French labour law reforms in Paris on May 17, 2016. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

His main opponent, for one, is just as weak as he is. This is Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union that is spearheading the strikes.

But unions represent fewer than 10 per cent of workers in France, and two other major unions are publicly uncomfortable with the continued unrest.

Above all, Hollande is counting on soccer madness to sink the strikes. 

Delirious enthusiasm

France, after all, won the World Cup in 1998 — on home soil — and, judging by the delirious enthusiasm at this year's warmup matches, French fans are hoping their team can do it again.

Woe to any group that tried to block that progress with strikes.

The more terrifying spectre for the French president is another successful attack. Everything has been done to try to prevent it. 

Striking French CGT labour union garbage collectors and sewer workers block access to the waste treatment center of Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, to protest a labour reforms law proposal May 31, 2016. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

France is in its seventh month of emergency rule, which gives police vastly increased powers of search and arrest. 

Almost 75,000 police and soldiers — that's a soccer stadium full — have been mobilized. Private security officers double that number.  France's sports minister says the tournament will be the most security-conscious ever.

A successful attack with bombs, guns and death would derail the tournament and destroy the presidency of Hollande.

Ah, spring in France.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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