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18 September 2000

Storming the Bastille, at any price

Fuel protesters beware! The French way of direct action could ruin us

By George Walden

“Backward in so many respects,” wrote the French social scientist Jean-Marie Domenach, “France is still in advance when it comes to the detection of social earthquakes.” Domenach was speaking ironically, but to a petrol-panicked Britain asking itself whether something has changed in its political psychology, his words appear prescient. Has France shown the way again, with its latest earthquake?

It is all about equality, and French egalitarianism is different from our own. It is less a question of “to each according to his needs”, more analogous to the so-called “most favoured nation” clause in trade agreements. This does not guarantee that you get special treatment, or that you are treated simply on a fair and reasonable basis, but that you have a right to the highest benefits going. As Savour de Tocqueville said in Voyage en Angleterre et en Irlande, which goes to the heart of pretty well everything there is to be said about France and England: “The French way of thinking is that they do not wish to have superiors. The English wish to have inferiors. The Frenchman constantly raises his eyes above himself in anxiety. The Englishman lowers them beneath him in satisfaction.”

Little Englanders of the right – with their doctrine of national conceit – and of the left – with their cultural braggadocio – should not cry and clutch their teddy bears for comfort at this appalling slur. The English culture of condescension is indeed hugely damaging, especially when practised by our new elites in politics and the arts. But the French attitude of insisting on the highest level of equality for all can result in its opposite: an equality of suffering.

Strikes by lorry drivers are an excellent example. The reason the hauliers go at it so hard and for so long is because they know that large numbers of the very people whose lives they are making intolerable support them. Here is a sectional interest group fighting for its droits acquis. The consequences of their action may be damaging to the economy, but what matters is the collective right to social selfishness.

The robust exercise of that right seems natural to millions of French citizens who make up diverse interest groups, be they farmers, fishermen, petits commercants, the workers who recently threatened to burn down their factory and pollute a river, or journalists as insistent on their archaic special tax regime as the American National Rifle Association is on the retention of guns. Each of them is quite capable of holding society to ransom because society, like the girl hostage who falls in love with her captor, is easily convinced that, for all the pain they inflict, they are defending the sacrosanct right of one and all to make life unlivable for each other in pursuit of the higher goal of equality.

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If each group were not acting in tacit collusion with one another, then the motorways of France would be littered with the unburied bodies of French lorry drivers. Because that combustible creature, the French driver, becomes all docile when autoroutes are blocked by his frere and oppressor. And the collusion can pay off. Many Frenchmen benefited indirectly from the farmers’ and hauliers’ actions.

So should we, will we, emulate these methods here? We should be sure what we are getting ourselves into. What happened in France was a form of collective looting – a reduction in the cost of fuel that fell, literally, off the back of a lorry and was gratefully pocketed by the masses. Sober, responsible Brits wag their fingers and warn that anyone can play that game; and, as always, we are right. The real danger is not so much what happens once single-issue politics are backed up with the threat of direct action, but what fails to happen.

French politicians agree sotto voce that this or that aspect of society or the economy is hopelessly antiquated and in need of radical reform, but they are damned if they are going to take on the vested interests concerned.

The best example of the pros and cons of the Frenchman “looking up in anxiety” is in education. Lingering in French schools is the ideal of education for its own sake, rather than the top-down English approach; at its best it involves going for the highest common denominator. Meanwhile, French universities are an overcrowded, under-resourced shambles. Here, the same egalitarian dogma – that it is a republican right that higher education should be open to all – is grotesquely perverted.

In culture, too, French notions of freedom and equality have positive and negative effects. Take food and TV. The opposition to the McDonaldsisation of France, minus its pyrotechnic excesses, is ultimately enlightened. As well as looking out for themselves, the farmers are resisting the decline of an aspect of French civilisation, and enjoining the country to aim high, gastronomically, in the interests of all. But they are also seeking to deprive the French of their freedom to debase their tastes.

In Britain, our TV, pride of the race, closely reflects our culture of condescension. Broadcasting elites “look down in satisfaction”, the result being a distinctly British brand of oversold mediocrity. French TV is scorned by intellectuals of right and left as unworthy of a supposedly educated population, who deserve better. Sadly, the practical result of this “looking up in anxiety” is television that is even worse than our own.

Should we decide to go French, I respectfully suggest that we ponder these lessons. They are wildly contradictory and totally inconclusive – but then, the French do love their little paradoxes.

George Walden’s The New Elite: making a career in the masses is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

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