2014 09 – What’s Happening In France


On the subject of the reform of local authorities in France, an exaggeration appeared in last month’s Froggy. There is no project to do away with the département. Or rather, there was such a project (2008 Attali government report) but it has not been adopted. Next there was (early 2014) a project to do away with the council that runs the département, (called the ‘conseil général’) but that was given up too. Needing the support of the Radicaux de Gauche after the resignation of leftish ministers at the end of August, the Government has given up that idea, in exchange for Left Radical support. The responsibilities of the conseil général will still be further discussed however, with a view to decrease them.

So there is a wish to do away with the département but it is no more than a wish at the moment.

The département clearly still has its defenders. It is part of history, and part of everyday life, even apart from its role in running services. It has a name and a number, for example Côte d’Or is 21 in the alphabetical list, and its number appears in people’s national insurance number, in their postcode, and in their car’s number plate. After a reform in 2009, the département number is no longer part of the car’s registration number but it must by law appear on the number plate, on the right of the number and inside the logo of its region; the other novelty is that you can freely choose the number you want. Most people choose their actual départements, but some, e.g. Bretons or Martiniquais living in Paris, choose their department of origin.



The département is run by a mixture of central and local government. In 1790 it was an agency of the state, run by a préfet nominated by Paris, and civil servants nominated by Paris. They were accompanied, much later, by a locally elected council. The slogan of the French Revolution and part of the 1791 Constitution, was ‘France, One and Indivisible’ (La France, Une et Indivisible). This knitting of France into departments achieved the aim of unity. This explains why today, when Spain, Belgium, Italy and Britain have regions that behave like mini states, and talk of separating, France is united in its territory. This is not to say that there are no regional differences. Some of the actual official regions are old distinctive provinces, like Brittany and Corsica, but there is no serious plan for separation.


The class struggle

Economic development is not evenly distributed through France, but it is not concentrated in particular regions which then might want to take their wealth away from the whole. The poles of wealth are the cities, and the cities are spread out: Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux.

An economist specialising in the ‘territoire’ (Laurent Davezies) described France as divided in four parts:

  1. One part is productively and commercially active, concentrated in the big cities, representing 36% of the population. 2. A second part is not productive but living on a combination of tourism, retirement pensions and public sector wages in the west, representing 44% of the population. 3. A third part is productive and commercial but unsuccessful, mainly in the northern half of the country (8%) and finally, 4. A fourth part is the non active, benefit dependent area in the north east (12%). This economic situation therefore does not favour a particular region that might then want to go it alone. The redistribution of income from income rich areas to income poor areas, might cause resentment, but not a desire to separate.

If the 4 part division of France represents reality, it explains its 2 part political division, with the UMP (right wing coalition) and the Socialist Party on one side, and the National Front on the other. 80% of the population, if we follow Davezies, are more or less satisfied with their situation, or even very satisfied; this would lead them to support the two liberal parties; on the other hand, the 12% feeling left out and having nothing to lose, tend to vote for the National Front. That party’s stronghold, Hénin-Beaumont, is in the ‘non active, benefit dependent’ part of the north-east which is where its voters are.

The State has coped with the destruction of the industrial base of France, especially in the ex-mining and steel producing north east, by spending money on benefits and government job creation. Austerity measures limiting this have a limited impact on the 80% but a drastic one on the 12% already living on a very small income.

Austerity affecting drastically a large minority, the fight against austerity is therefore going to be a minority fight. Like the division of the Western world into an opposition of interest between the 1% versus the 99%, the numbers involved are too unwieldy and represent a number of the dissatisfied that is either much too large for people to recognise themselves in a vital way in that number, or too small to be effective in the case of the 12%. In neither case is a viable and realistic alternative to the present arrangements presented. Both standpoints leave out the ‘external proletariat’, the working people of the developing world who produce our clothes, food and equipment. We profit from their labour and leave them out of the equation when it comes to defending our standard of living, in the same way that 19th century English textile workers did not concern themselves with the origin of the cotton they worked on. Now that the exploitation of the rest of the world means the end of jobs for many in the developed world, it is peculiar that it is still left out of political plans.


September Wine Harvest

This is still about localities, in this case the territories that produce particular foods and drinks, called terroir, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon globalist outlook on France.

The terroir is a territory that produces a particular food or drink.

The word terroir has no direct equivalent in English, even the word territoire sounds wrong when translated in English as ‘territory’ in the context of for example local government. Yet in French it is used routinely: local authorities are ‘collectivités territoriales’, leaving the country in the sense of crossing the border is ‘quitter le territoire’, France is ‘le territoire français’. In English ‘territory’ is used in the context of animals (‘the robin defends its territory’) and gangs. There is something wrong with human beings having ‘territories’. (Even the Territorial Army has jettisoned its name, and now calls itself the Army Reserve).

Doubt has long been cast in England on the validity of the notion of ‘terroir’, the place where something is grown, giving it its unique characteristics. Everything, taste, texture, colour can be reproduced, if not in a laboratory, at least anywhere with a suitable climate, supposing vines can’t be grown under plastic.

Terroir is a notion, say the critics, cultivated for commercial purposes; it is a ‘non-tariff’ barrier to trade, to speak the language of the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, (TTIP). For example only wine made from grapes grown in Champagne can make Champagne. Other wines do not deserve the name, even if their taste and appearance are similar.

Champagne isn’t one thing with one taste, like R. White lemonade. It is a category; lots of growers make it, in varying degrees of quality. The taste also changes from year to year with variation in rain and sun. So, why not allow others to use the name, if their wine could be taken for a Champagne?

Perhaps wine made from grapes grown somewhere else could be taken for Champagne, perhaps the origin is not crucial to the character of the wine.

Champagne is holding on to its trade mark at the moment. Competitors in the wine market obviously want to minimize the French advantage, hence the fashion, in England at least, for buying wine by grape sort: “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay’.

Suddenly that new approach widens the market in a fantastic manner. It is easier to buy (and to sell) wine. Instead of having to be familiar with the name and taste of the wine of a region, especially a French or even European region, you only need to be familiar with the taste (or at least the name) of a wine making grape, wherever it comes from in the world.

This is good news for some French producers; before they were, for example, the absolutely unknown (and if known totally unregarded) “Coiffy-le-Haut” (from a region too cold to produce good wine), now their label displays their name printed small and “Chardonnay” printed big, and they will at least sell to English holidaymakers visiting the local supermarket. They might also take their chances on the wider market place alongside other Chardonnays.

Better known wine producers will cling on to their famous names. Like the départements, they refuse to be insignificant in the global world, and they have a long life in front of them. The French state is trying to disengage as much as possible from the population, leaving them to the market (private employment, private education, private health) but the elements put in place with the French Revolution to engage the population with the State are still in place, and the population still has representatives and institutions that force the state to keep its role. The wine of Nuits-St-Georges and its place of origin the Côte d’Or (21) will live on.