Holidays in the country
A certain village half way down France to the East, in the département of the Haute Marne, has terraced houses built in the old style with space for farm animals under the same roof as space for people. The beds used to be placed inside very large wooden cupboards and a huge stone fireplace warmed the whole. Now brick or breeze blocks separate the barn from the living quarters. The door of the barn has lozenge or heart shaped holes to let in the swallows who come every year to build their nests and raise one or two broods. Until the 1980s cows came through the village streets into the barn part of the house twice a day for milking.
Today some houses are tastefully done up, the paint work an elegant pale grey, the stone work restored, the grass in front neat. Others are abominations of random concrete repairs. The neat ones belong to foreigners who come in the summer, the ugly ones to the young of the village who have decided to stay. Some houses neither tasteful nor ugly belong to the older generation of locals. Big family parties, grand-parents, cousins etc gather on Friday and Saturday evenings in the ugly houses, with much noise and laughter.
Life there revolves round family rather than round work. Whether this is by choice or necessity, the result seems to be a lot of happiness. But we couldn’t all do that, or what would happen to the economy? Who would buy the tasteful grey paint?
The landscape provides other examples of uneconomic behaviour. Fields feed mixed groups of animals: a bull, cows and calves; the calves suckle their mothers. But perhaps the owner of the beasts gets a premium for this quality of rearing of meat.
At the market in the nearby small town stall holders upturn a metal dish for their customers to write their cheques on. At the railway station, the person behind the counter explains to passengers all the different times and tariffs of the different trains that run on different days, and it’s very complicated and takes a very long time. Then he prepares their railcard for them, cutting the edge of the photo they supply with little scissors to make it fit, slides it carefully under the sticky plastic etc etc. When the whole operation is over, the passenger leaves, saluting politely everyone in the queue.
No wonder France needs ‘reforming’! It’s all much too slow and behind the times. And the idea of preferring to be near your family rather than exile yourself to a distant place for the sake of a job! Who can afford this luxury?
The new Labour Law, the so-called El Khomri law, was finally passed in July thanks to a government decree. The work of liberalisation is ongoing, with continuing obstructions from the population and the unions.
Another SCOP, Societe Coopérative Ouvrière de Production, [Production Cooperative Society run by its workers] was formed when a printing firm was to close down. It was taken over by the employees, who went on to employ the manager as their commercial manager. The 19 employees invested their redundancy money and government grants to take over the business. This was validated by the local tribunal of commerce of Puy-en-Velay.
Meanwhile the trial of Orange/France Telecom managers is beginning. They are accused of causing the suicides of dozens of employees during the years when they were ‘slimming down’ the human resources with modern managerial methods, including transferring people to posts away from home, making them choose between family and job.
A programme on France Inter state radio on rhetoric and eloquence took the former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Georges Marchais, as the model to study. We heard him speaking, and the wise heads pointed out the use of ad hominem arguments, humour, sudden changes of tone and the other rhetorical devices employed by the orator. Marchais was very impressive. What is French radio thinking of? Still, it was August, the silly season.
Shop keepers claim the right not to work! Shopkeepers in a shopping mall near Toulon closed their establishment during the public holiday of 14th July; they were prosecuted by the owner of the mall. The main culprit was fined 180,000 Euros; his reaction was, if that’s how it is, I won’t open on the 15th August either. This is part of the general effort to hold on to Sundays and bank holidays as days off for shop employees.
France not a Catholic country.
During the Revolution, ‘trees of liberty’ were planted. One school in a little town of the Haute Marne planted a ‘tree of secularism’ [arbre de la laïcité] in its front yard; laïcité is the fundamentalist secularism sponsored by the state, the banning of public expressions of religion. But the landscape in the countryside round that little town offers a silent protest against this. At the entrance of every village stands an old stone cross; if several roads lead into the village, each road has a cross. The grass is neatly cut round it, sometimes flowers are planted there. The church in the centre of the village is locked and empty, with a notice saying where mass might be heard on a Sunday, somewhere else. But the churchyard is full, the new graves in particular covered in flowers and ornaments. The bells ring floridly at noon and 7 in the evening. Catholicism must have a meaning of sorts for the people there.
The French have a bank holiday unknown in England: the 15th of August, traditionally a big holiday. (It celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin, when Mary is transported to heaven to sit with Jesus.) Radio stations on the day announce this as something celebrated by ‘the Catholic community’. It is observed throughout France, shops are closed etc. It is true that its true meaning is only celebrated by ‘the Catholic community’, but referring to a ‘community’, rather than just ‘Catholics’ puts that religious group on the same level as Muslims and Jews, which is the aim of the exercise, but does not reflect the reality in the country. It is also in line with state thinking, that religion is something peculiar, only indulged in by peculiar ‘communities’.
At the end of July a priest was murdered while celebrating mass by a man claiming to act for Islamic State. Hollande had to distance himself from the event: ‘the Catholic community feels the attack deeply’, but also claim that the whole of France felt the pain: ‘when a Catholic priest is murdered, the whole of France is attacked’, he said. He then requested an audience with the Pope. The State’s denial of religion leads to some incoherence.
More secularism and more incoherence, after the fight in Corsica between locals and people of immigrant origin on a beach by a coastal village. The first reaction of the mayor, who is responsible for public order, was to ban the bathing costume designed for fundamentalist Muslim women. The argument was that Islamists were behind this costume wearing and it was part of their plan to disrupt French society, and as such it had to be stopped. The mayor, a socialist, said, in defence of his decision to ban that costume, that his Maghrebine fellow citizens were being plagued by Islamists and had to be protected from them.
It turns out that no one was wearing that costume that day. Three families of immigrant origin, from Bastia, the capital of Corsica, had adopted a small beach as their own, or monopolised parts of it. Some thoughtless tourist turned up and started taking pictures; he was told to desist in no uncertain terms, or with some violence, depending on reports. The locals came to his defence, and a general fight ensued. Now the fight is presented as a dispute over the ownership of public space, but the absurd dispute over the bathing costume fills the media, making France ridiculous once again. The French Human Rights League weighed in, invoking the right of everyone to wear what they like, and the debate fruitlessly goes on, ignoring the real issues.