On the eve of his weird re-election as president of France, upending Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, Jacques Chirac publicly thanked millions of street demonstrators. Action in the street, said a grateful Chirac, had shown that “France will forever be France”. The next day, with democracy duly saved, every politician in the land except for Le Pen was pinning the winner’s medal on young demonstrators who had instructed France to pull her democratic stockings up.
The protesters’ glory confirms something compelling about France: in times of crisis, it turns from politics of debate to politics of the heart. To Britain’s trust in parliamentary democracy, France responds with street democracy. Huff as you will about mob rule, anarchy and the dangers thereof, the politics of the street has certain advantages. Join half a million indignant Frenchmen on a May Day march down sainted Paris boulevards, and I guarantee that your senses will be tuned to the issues rather more sharply than from listening intently to a democratic morale-booster by Tony Blair. The blood races, the spirits lift. You are meeting the first task of a citizen: to make yourself heard.
One fault of parliamentary democracy is that those it gratifies most are members of parliament, not the people who send them there. It must be fun to sit chanting “hear, hear” to well-turned insults flung at opponents on the other side of the House. Most of what the public hears directly from political leaders, however, is non-speak designed to avoid controversy. The French call this “wooden-tongued” talk and they get a deluge of it from their top politicians, again excepting the provocative Le Pen. Down on the street, the political discourse has proper bite. A crook is a crook (Chirac), a fascist a fascist (Le Pen), and a liar a liar (Chirac).
A further advantage of French street democracy, a direct descendant of the 1789 revolution, is that it works. France has the excellent boulevards and squares it requires: Boulevard Saint Germain, the Champs-Elysees, Place de la Republique and Place de la Nation in Paris alone, not to mention the Canebiere in Marseilles, where police measure the size of a protest march by the number of times it fills the avenue: a three-Canebiere demo will sure as fate change municipal policy.
In recent times, the politics of the street has succeeded in changing France’s course in the direction the demonstrators intended – from the May 1968 student-worker uprising through the endless mass demos on better conditions for the police, farmers and railwaymen, to the national red card for Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections. French governments of right and left begin to organise their retreat as soon as the latest malcontents cry, “Into the street!”.
As a system, however, street democracy seems a little unpredictable. What if those May Day masses hadn’t had democratic hearts of gold and had supported Le Pen instead? Can one entirely rely on Chirac’s stirring notion that “France will forever be France”? No, total bliss it is not, to be alive in these May days.
But sound parliamentary democracy rests on strong political parties, which France lacks. Hence the lasting appeal of the street. The grouse of today’s European citizenry is that it is cut off from what the European Union is doing in its name. It wants contact. Maybe the French are pointing a way to go.