Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Authority is back!

The month of May 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the “events”, as they are still euphemistically called in France, of May 1968.  There has been some talk in the media about whether the anniversary should be celebrated and if so how. Especially as most people old enough to remember them have images of disruption and chaos uppermost in their minds. The mini revolution culminated in what some consider a near coup d’état, thwarted only by the failure of the student and workers’ movements to find common ground and the reluctance of political leaders like François Mitterrand or the leadership of the powerful (at the time) French communist party to exploit the situation, overthrow de Gaulle and form a new government. After some initial hesitation, President de Gaulle eventually put up a spirited defence of the regime he had founded, dissolved parliament and won a resounding victory in the subsequent elections. The political crisis at least was over by the end of June.

It can be argued though that the effects of May 1968 are still being felt in France today. It was after all a revolt against authority that had been brewing for some time, similar to revolts in other western democracies during the same period. A revolt against the authority of parents, teachers, bosses, the church, political leaders and the powers that be in general. One of its best known slogans was: “it shall be forbidden to forbid” (“il est interdit d’interdire”) Anybody like myself who brought up children in France in the 1970s and 80s knows only too well that notions of authority were profoundly different after May 1968 than in the 1950s and early 60s. For better or for worse, previously imposed, and often grudgingly accepted, authority gave way to widespread liberalisation in almost every area of society, as the perceived balance of individual rights and obligations underwent a radical shift. And so it has been ever since, so deeply ingrained in the prevalent culture that nobody seems to notice any more. 50 years on however, and particularly since the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, there are signs that the pendulum may be swinging back. Three examples come to mind.

The first concerns reactions to the recently announced ban on the use of mobile phones on the premises of primary and secondary schools from September 2018. Interviewed on TV, a teachers union leader, clearly ill at ease with the proposed measure, claimed that it would be difficult to enforce, referring to the need to “search pupils” or require them to lock up their phones in individual custom-built lockers. In a discussion about this over the Christmas turkey, one of my daughters-in-law, born in 1977, the same year as Emmanuel Macron, and certainly no sympathiser of the Front National, simply said this: “why can’t schools just tell pupils that the use of mobile phones on school premises is forbidden and if they are caught using one it will be confiscated? That’s what they do in privately run schools and I know for a fact that it works!” My conclusion from this brief exchange was that at least one 40 year-old parent today is not convinced that forbidding should be forbidden, nor that authority cannot and should not be exerted, and respected, when it serves a specific purpose.

The second example concerns the on-going national debate about the reform of unemployment allowances and vocational training. Under the current system, a job seeker is required to accept a job offer or a training opportunity if his or her employment counsellor judges it reasonable. After two refusals, the job seeker can be struck off the unemployment register for two to six months. In addition, their allowances can be cut but this decision can only be taken by a prefect, the direct representative of the state. The sanction is hardly ever applied and therefore exists largely on paper only.  As part of the reform being mooted by the government, the employment agency will be empowered to take that decision itself. Unions and left-wing politicians have protested loudly with hard-hitting sound bites like: “the government should be tackling unemployment and not the unemployed”. In reality, fewer than 15% of job seekers would be liable for this kind of sanction but the state has clearly been reluctant, so far at least, to exert its own authority and apply the existing law.

The third concerns the vexed, emotionally charged and infinitely more complex issue of immigration and how to deal with the mass of migrants who end up in France and apply for asylum here. France of course has a long and generous tradition of welcoming and integrating foreigners, but the squalid and well publicised encampments in Calais or under the bridges of overhead metro lines in different parts of Paris suggest, at the very least, that the welcoming tradition is being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. Again, the law is clear: once an asylum request has been rejected, disappointed claimants should be returned either to their home country or to the first EU country in which they landed. But again, the measure is hardly ever applied. The vast majority of migrants whose asylum claim has been rejected manage to stay on as illegals, making the situation of overcrowding even worse and putting increased pressure on the authorities and the volunteer organisations that do their level best to alleviate their plight.

Once again it is the state that is reluctant to apply the full force of the law and use the police to deport those who have been told they can no longer stay. President Macron announced recently that he would tighten up regulations on migrants who are not allowed, after due process, to stay in France. Predictably, political opponents on the left have protested that France’s welcoming tradition is being trodden underfoot and that that the police have no right to enter premises housing immigrants in order to identify and arrest illegals. On the far right of the political spectrum, the Front National has been saying, with a smirk of satisfaction, that Macron is only about to do what it has been advocating for many years.

In any democratic society of course there must be public debate, and in France there always is - and it is always heated - about the rights and obligations of the unemployed or whether economic migrants should enjoy the same status as refugees from war zones, on what criteria that distinction should be made and what should be done about those who fall on the wrong side of the dividing line. That being said, once the debate has run its course and legislation has been passed, a government that does not apply it loses credibility and is rightly accused of doing nothing – a charge that can be levelled at many governments since May 1968. During Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, for example, a number of brutal murders were committed by convicted criminals who had been released on parole or whose prison sentences had been reduced.  At Sarkozy’s instigation, and under pressure from public opinion, parliament voted no less than six new laws in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of such events.  The widely held view is that they have made precious little difference to actual sentencing and parole practises, simply because they are not applied.

By contrast, President Macron has gone on record more than once as saying: “I will do what I have said I will do”. During his presidential campaign he did indeed say that the unemployed should be held to greater account in exchange for fairly generous allowances and more recently that he will tighten up the immigration laws. Looking back over his first few months in office, he has certainly not been afraid to assert his authority. One remembers, for example, his very public dressing down of the army’s Chief of Staff before the summer holidays (See my post: “Hail to the Chief!” - July 16).

Perhaps he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of May 1968 by reminding the French, in word and deed, that the authority of the state is being restored and that he will continue to set an example at the very top. A Head of State who was born nearly ten years after “the events”, may finally be consigning their legacy to history!

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