Thursday, 7 November 2013

Les Calembours: the Next Level

I've written before about the joy I experience every time I understand a French pun ... and the only thing better than a verbal pun is a visual one. This link has been doing the rounds on Facebook and seems to be putting smiles on lots of faces:


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Young Rebels?

It's early on an October morning and still dark outside. You are passing your local high school when you notice movements in the shadows and realise it's a crowd of hooded teenagers. Some break off from the group and sprint across the road. They spread in different directions, grabbing on to the neighbourhood bins and pushing them back towards the school gates. Under the lamplight, you notice that the pavements are strewn with detritus. A few cigarettes glow in the dark.

What do you do?

When it happened to me, I considered confronting the teenagers, contacting the school or phoning the police, before eventually deciding that, whatever the kids were up to, all of the above actions were unlikely to make a difference. It was only that evening when we were watching the news on TV that I discovered the explanantion: our local lycée, which has the reputation of being somewhat communist (and they mean the pupils, not the teachers - only in France!) was holding a protest against the deportation of Leonarda, the 15 year old girl who was removed from the coach on a school trip to be sent back to Kosovo with the rest of her family.

Since then, there have been several repeat manifestations, along with plenty of debate in the media about the rights and wrongs of the case, and watching and reflecting on these, I came to a new understanding of the whole French striking mentality.

In all the time I've lived in France, I've always been somewhat baffled by the way that students and school pupils are so willing to damage their own interests in order to stage a good demonstration. In 2006, for example, when my university was barricaded to show objection to the controversial contrat première embauche (Youth Employment Contract) I understood the concerns of the students, but not why they thought that the best way to protest was to prevent themselves from attending the classes that were supposed to help them towards gainful employment. It seemed a lot like cutting of your nose in spite of your face to me, especially when, in the most militant universities, there was talk of students having to repeat the year in order to cover all the coursework and sit their exams.

In the Leonarda case, however, the explanation becomes clearer. However unwilling the teachers who were actually on the trip might have been to hand the girl over to the authorities, in this story, symbolically at least, the lycée is an arm of the state acting in the interests of another, more malevolent, branch of that same state. It ceases to become the establishment that provides the students with a future, and becomes the traitor that betrays them instead. It's an interpretation that you can disagree with, but at least it makes sense.

I think the reason that this mentality is so much more evident in France comes down to the nature of the French State itself. Far more than in the UK, it appears to be omnipresent and all-encompassing. It dictates everything from employee benefits to exactly what children learn at school. People depend on it from the moment they are born in a public hospital to when they draw their last pension from its centralised funds. And so, when they decide to rebel against it, its symbols are everywhere, and any of its property is fair game for a manif.