City of Love, Philosophy and Barricades


Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles

It’s always a pleasure to come back to Paris. The grandes boulevards, with their crush of strolling Parisiens looking admiringly at each other; the monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon’s self-serving tribute to his Grande Armée and its victories over the old royal houses of Europe; the obnoxious Pompidou Centre and its ever-changing diet of cultural spectacle; the magnificent Institut du Monde Arabe, a glass palace on the left bank of the Seine and tribute to French intellectual openness to the Islamic world.

I am staying in a little residence on the rue Monge, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, just around the corner from the lovely Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles, where I accumulated many fine memories as a young man. The students are still wandering the streets absorbed in the latest book, or strolling around in pairs like lovers the morning after, looking for the nearest café to dive into.

And as if to complete the picture, there are barricades in the streets around the Sorbonne, and the smell of tear gas in the air.

For the first time since May 1968, the students are revolting.

It all began a few weeks ago, with the announcement from the French Prime Minister, the dashing and handsome Dominique de Villepin, that first-time employment contracts would be made more flexible.

The old worker-student alliance erupted at once. Never mind that French employment laws are the most rigid in Europe, making life cosy for those with a job but desperate for those without. The students would have none of this tampering with the contrat première embauche (CPE) and the unions backed them all the way.

On Thursday, the day after my arrival in Paris, there was a march down the stately Esplanade des Invalides, which started out as a good-humoured manifestation, with colourful banners and plenty of student good cheer, but degenerated by the end of the day into street riots and nasty clashes.

Riots against the employment law

The clashes were almost certainly provoked by small groups of agitators from the Arab suburbs where the worst riots in France’s recent history played out night after night late last year who came to crash the party. Not that they have any interest in the CPE, nor in its reform, but they were clearly enchantés at the thought of another chance to throw rocks at French police, and harass passers-by and spectators all shown on French television.

Not for these gate-crashers the great slogans of May 1968 in Paris my favourite of which was ‘Be realistic demand the impossible!’ Today, the demands are a little less grand.

So the French Prime Minister is under siege and, at the time of writing, is trying to stand his ground while being abandoned by his ministerial colleagues. History teaches that De Villepin stands a good chance as presidential candidate if he is seen as not caving into the pressure from the street and he knows it. Meanwhile, de Villepin’s arch-rival, head of the ruling UMP Party and the current Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is stepping deftly around the mess, posing as a champion of negotiation and moderation, while proposing a far more extensive reform namely, flexibility in all French labour contracts.

Jacques Chirac

French history and culture are indeed hard taskmasters. During my visit, President Chirac made headlines worldwide with his decision to walk out of a speech on energy policy given at a meeting of the European Council by the head of the French employers’ federation. Why would Chirac walk out of a speech by one of his own trusted businessmen? Because the man dared to deliver the speech in English!

Chirac explained to the assembled media, all agog at this further show of French insouciance, that it is not proper for a French representative at an international gathering to use the language of Shakespeare rather than the language of Voltaire. The French delegation apparently hung its head in despair.

Tony Blair, present at the farce, noted with deep irony that people walk out of gatherings for a variety of reasons hinting that it might have had a lot more to do with French difficulties with the energy issue (they do after all have the highest level of dependence on nuclear power in the world) than with language.

And yet you have to have a sneaking respect for Chirac and his in-your-face attempts to stop the English juggernaut rolling over the world. The journalists from the London tabloid The Sun were perhaps a bit too smug as they solemnly presented Chirac with a book a ‘gift from the people of Britain’ entitled Dictionnaire français-anglais pour les globetrotters.

Chirac accepted it with a smile.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.