Déjà vu

Catholic Ultras march (again)

‘What do we want?’

‘The traditional family.’

‘When do we want it?’

‘All day and every day. From now and for ever.’

Those so-lovable Catholic Ultras who created La Manif Pour Tous [‘The Protest Demo for Everyone’] have been on the roads again. This extreme-conservative movement was launched in 2012 to fight same-sex marriage (Le Mariage pour Tous … linguistic specialists will spot the witty Catholic Ultra subversion of the gay marriage definition).

Certain Manif Pour Tous leaders have perhaps moved into the 21st century. They haven’t, for example, officially opposed abortion or civil unions (le pacte civile de solidarité aka pacs). Yet in most other aspects of their existence, the movement seems happy to adopt the themes of the traditional ultra-right. However, despite their getting out anywhere between 150,000 and 1,400,000 on the streets in 2012 (other estimates of crowd numbers are available) during their bitter anti-gay marriage protest, La Manif Pour Tous failed to prevent the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.

Happily for them, those traditional-family-loving-Catholic-Ultras have been able, finally, to identify a solid cause to take them on the march again. Their new bugbear is President Macron’s first major social reform. Half-way through his first term, Macron finally decided to launch his long-promised (and much-delayed) legislation to enable single women and lesbian couples to obtain IVF treatment. After so many political initiatives, since his election, demonstrating Emmanuel Macron’s intention to appeal to the right, this reform is perhaps the flagship (sole?) project intended to attract those on the left. [Assuming that old left-right pendulum still has some residual meaning!]

What sounder issue to bring those Catholic Ultras back to the street struggle? And with a ready-made banner under which to march: Liberté, Egalité, Paternité. Again, witty.

The heavyweights of the French Bishops Conference then weighed in. ‘The Church is not organising this demonstration’ the Archbishop of Reims, their President, made clear. ‘That’s not our way of dealing with matters … But, personally, I do not see how we can prevent citizens worried by this law from demonstrating, regardless whether they are Catholics or not, if they think that is an appropriate way for their voices to be heard … Indeed, I would argue that it is their duty [my emphasis] to do so.’

So that’s clear then. The Catholic Church Expects Every Citizen To Do Their Duty. A powerful call to arms. But it appears that Catholic Bishops ain’t wot they used to be.

The Catholic Ultra organisers instantly claimed that 500,000 people marched on 6 October in Paris, with a further 70,000 in Bordeaux. Miserly police officers put the numbers at a risible 42,000 and 7,500. The newspapers performed their own count, with the help of outside consultants: they estimated 70,000 marched in Paris.

This all proved far too much for La Manif Pour Tous, who commissioned a ravishingly exciting film … complete with ever-louder neo-martial music. The film proves (except, probably, for devilish doubting Thomases) that 500,000 was, in fact, a gross under-estimate. There were actually no less than SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND performing their duty that blessed day. The film ends with the stirring slogan: ‘The fight is just beginning’.

Well. Perhaps. Maybe it’s in fact already over.

In Parliament, following 80 hours of debate, and 2,600 amendments, Deputies voted last week in favour of the Bill by a moderately decisive 359 votes to 114 (with 72 abstentions). Interestingly, not everyone fell wholly in line with their Party allegiances. Three-quarters of the Républicains (traditional right) voted against, with a dozen in favour. Among the Government’s usually hyper-disciplined République en Marche party, 250 Deputies voted for, 8 against and 25 abstained.

Even though the Senate still has a clear right-wing majority, the legislation is likely to be supported in principle. But to show their continuing independence (and conservative mean-spiritedness) Senators could try to require gay and single women to pay for their IVF treatment, unlike straight couples for whom IVF is free. That will certainly provoke a backlash, resulting in a Parliamentary struggle between the two Chambers.

Interior Minister Castaner misspeaks (again)

The role of Interior Minister is central in Governments everywhere. In France, the interaction between Interior Minister and law enforcement, terrorism and immigration means the office-holder has the highest possible profile. Importantly, the position can be a launchpad for higher office still. Valls graduated to Prime Minister (before throwing it all in to become a Barcelona Councillor); Mitterand, Chirac and Sarkozy (whisper it) all made it to that infamously greasy pole’s apex. BUT. Being ‘N° 1 cop’ can prove career-damaging, especially to any politician given to impulsiveness.

Christophe Castaner, ex-Socialist, joined Emmanuel Macron early in his Presidential campaign. After serving as Macron’s first spokesperson, Castaner became Government mouthpiece. Ideal for a man rarely short of something (anything) to say. But the ambitious Castaner wanted to be no-one’s mouthpiece and at the top table.

Finally, a year ago, rewarded with the Interior Ministry, Castaner obtained the position he’d long coveted. But, rarely off the front pages, Castaner has had to be rescued more than once by his Prime Minister (his President’s lent support too) because, rushing to defend police action, Castaner often seemingly responds to dramatic events over-hastily and/or under-sympathetically.

Castaner’s initial timing was unfortunate. Within weeks of his nomination, every Saturday saw demonstrations (and increasing violence) by the gilets jaunes (and, increasingly, black bloc anarchists). So, most weeks saw Castaner either condemned by the right for being unprepared and over-lax, after (say) the ransacking (more than once) of The Most Beautiful Avenue In The World, or condemned by the left for allowing the police to act mob-handedly (2,500 demonstrators were injured over the year, not forgetting nearly 2,000 police injuries).

Police use of sub-lethal weapons (such as Flash-Balls) against gilets jaunes demonstrators, and subsequent desperately serious injuries, with some blinded in one eye, brought Castaner onto the front pages. His instant description of a May Day ‘attack’ on Paris’s Salpiètre Hospital turned out, in fact, to be non-violent demonstrators trying to escape police pursuit. Castaner then took 2 days to admit he ‘shouldn’t have used the word ‘attack’ but ‘violent intrusion’.

In the small hours of 2019’s Midsummer Night Fête de la Musique, a young man called Steve Caniço disappeared, in Nantes. It followed a police charge after they’d decided the music had to stop. During a fracas, 15 people fled to the River Loire. For over a month, until his body was found, the words ‘Où est Steve?‘ were everywhere.

A report followed allowing Castaner to locate a senior Préfet who would take the blame for the night’s death. TV channel LCI described Castaner as a ‘virtual Minister’ with Prime Minister Philippe ‘at his shoulder, as if his guardian, watching over every utterance of his manservant … a Minister on borrowed time.’ [Independent investigation website Basta shows Caniço to be yet another death in a line of 578 deaths which occurred following police action, between 1977 and 2018.]

Castaner appears, recently, to have begun even to lose the confidence of the police themselves. He fell under pressure when 27,000 police participated in a National March of Anger on 2 October.

A combination of increasing levels of suicide by police officers (50 so far in 2019, up from 2018’s 35), coupled with unhappiness at the Government’s new retirement proposals, resulted in Castaner saying he would defend the special status of police officers ‘to the very end’.

But the following day came a much more shocking incident. A murderous knife attack committed by an IT worker within the Paris Police HQ left 3 police officers and an administrative worker dead and others injured. An IT worker with access to every computer secret of the police’s national terrorist-watchers.

Enter Interior Minister Castaner. He reassuringly calmed the nation: ‘The attacker never displayed any behavioural difficulties … nor any warning sign of radicalisation’. But someone’s quick glance at the murderer’s H.R. file was seriously insufficient.

Two days later we learnt how wrong the Minister’s comments were. The murderer had ‘expressed approval of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders’. He’d expressed a wish ‘no longer to have contact with female colleagues’. He had links with radical Islamic individuals. How was it that those concerns expressed orally by colleagues about the murderer had not been followed up? The political right and Le Pen on the ultra-right (with the hard left’s Mélenchon playing catch up) smelt the opportunity to get rid of Castaner. They called for his resignation. But it takes more than just another hapless statement to win that scalp.

Castaner admitted there’d been ‘failures’ in a ‘dysfunctional system’. But the Prime Minister, once again, expressed ‘every confidence’ (echoed by the President) in his Interior Minister. New procedures were promised to identify possible signs of radicalisation in any police officer. The nation is less forgiving. Odoxa‘s poll showed 70% have no confidence in Castaner, with two out of three saying he’s ‘incompetent’, has ‘no authority’ and is ‘not reassuring’.

Some days further on, Castaner now probably believes he’s put the matter to rest. Interviewed on France 2 TV, he dismissed the ‘Pavlovian response’ of his opponents in demanding his resignation (again). And then revealed, headline-grabbingly, that the police had recently dismantled the 60th terrorist plot since 2013 – someone allegedly inspired by the 9/11 aerial attacks.

A Great Debate (again) and workers defending workers rights (again)

Months of gilets jaunes protests were eventually dampened down by President Macron’s Great Debate(s), even if never wholly extinguished. [The one year’s anniversary of the start of those roundabout protests will be marked by a series of celebratory gilets jaunes events on 16/17 November.]

The President’s willingness to participate in hours of debate and discussion throughout France, over several months, won grudging admiration. Coupled with online tools allowing claims of citizens’ participation, some bitterness was undeniably assuaged.

But the Government’s proposals to merge 42 separate state retirement schemes into a single national pension scheme, applicable to all, has started badly. Protests against the cessation of individual privilege(d) schemes have greatly strengthened.

So President Macron launched (after a week’s delay due to the death of ex-President Chirac) The Great Pensions Debate. Three hours with 500 readers of a local newspaper in Rodez, in the south of France, got those debating juices flowing again. Emmanuel Macron enjoyed highlighting unacceptable differences in different people’s pension arrangements. Why a nurse employed by a hospital get a different pension to a freelance nurse? Why a bus driver employed by the Greater Paris RATP transport employer retires at a different age to a driver employed by a different local employer?

Explaining the proposals, the President promised that the pension reforms would affect no-one aged over 55. One in five women said the President, their careers broken by periods of non-paid employment, currently have to work until 67, to retire with a full pension … but this would all change for the better (needless to say).

Emmanuel Macron made clear the object of this Second Great Debate: The ‘citizens’ consultation’ won’t remove the reform, but [Presidential thesaurus close to hand] it will ‘enable it to be adjusted, changed, modified or corrected’.

For any wanting to participate actively in The Great Pensions Debate with consultations until end-2019, there’s an online tool available: a quick(ish) questionnaire, plus opportunities to express your own views. It’s so like that earlier Great Debate. So much two-way consultation.

Except, to be honest, the Government really did learn from the over-facile way in which they seemed to condition responses during that First Great Debate. Now, there’s a serious attempt at enhancing understanding of the complex issues. Perhaps that explains why – 3 weeks after launch – only 12,000 have responded to a challenging online questionnaire.

But, out on the streets, most comrades aren’t interested in the niceties of the reforms on offer. They don’t seem bothered by the fact that none of it will even start to be implemented before 2025, over a 15-year period of transition and with all rights acquired pre-2025 preserved. I say ‘most’ because the largest union, the ‘moderate’ CFDT, appears still to be attracted to many of the Government’s proposals, accepting that long-term many won’t be able to retire at 62 on full pension. The success of the opposition to President Macron’s proposals may well hang on the CFDT’s final position. 

For those seeking good headlines, it’s all bubbling up nicely. On 5 December and 3 February, strikes will be held, some of which will cause major disruption. Lawyers, advocates, pilots, nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, speech therapists. You name them, there’s a special category of retirement arrangements that’s about to be affected. And then, of course, there’s a reminder of those dark days of 1995 when public transport in the Paris region was at a standstill for weeks in response to the Chirac-Juppé far-less-ambitious pension reform plans. No-one around at the time will forget the 4-hour journeys some endured for weeks … until Government threw it all in.The 5 December strikes on the Greater Paris region railways are not just for a day. They’ve announced that they’re unlimited in duration.’No trains in Paris. France paralysed’. Hard times ahead.




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