Vive La France!


The French government on Friday ordered riot police to pile into workers occupying an oil depot near Marseille (the Fos-Lavéra). Similar attacks were carried out at depots in Cournon d’Auvergne in central France and Ambès on the coast. Bus loads of cops turned up. More protests and punch-ups are promised this week.

Port, transport and energy workers, joined by students* and teachers around the country, are striking to oppose the unpopular “austerity” policies of President Sarkozy. They’re at the ports to cause a petrol shortage. Students blocked railway lines in several cities, including Rennes, Reims and Agen.

(*Not only Students from University. A lot are secondary school pupils: 934 schools in France have been on strike this week, both pupils and teachers are outside on the picket lines).

There’s been a week of huge protest actions against the pension cuts in France, which include a two-year increase in the retirement age and pay-in period.

This proves the immense social power of the working class, which can bring the economy to a halt if it engages in a proper struggle.

The French police denounced “scenes of urban guerrilla warfare” and demanded harsher “means to intervene.” Seven policemen were wounded in punch-ups between youths and Police in the Parisien suburbs, though the most seriously wounded officer was not hurt by protesters but by a truck driver who tried to ram protesters after becoming angry over being stuck in traffic.

(The Paris police said they wouldn’t use rubber bullets after a student was badly injured when police shot him in the face with a rubber bullet on Wednesday).

Phew!

George Osborne is planning worse than Sarkosy, yet the British will grumble rather than get out on the streets. Is this because we don’t really understand what the Con-Libs are up to? Or that Britain is by nature a conservative, capitalist, laisse-faire country?

Or that we have no traditions of protest? Brtish law does not recognise any special right of public meeting for political or other purposes.

Comrade Wilkes (not to be confused with Comrade Wilko)

Protest gets written out of the history of the development of civil liberties here. Many of the victories of the 18th and 19th centuries were only achieved because behind a John Wilkes, a William Hone or a Henry Hunt stood a crowd. When the state gradually backed down from restrictive measures and began to reform itself it was partly because the threat of violence stalked in the background. Yet protestors have always been seen as being part of the losing side of history. But Wat Tyler, the Levellers, the Chartists, had a profound impact on our politics without, as it were, winning a match.

Westminster is an intimidating place for anyone who has an opinion. You can’t protest on Parliament Square. Because of the tourists. No wonder disengagement with politics is endemic, it’s no fun any more. The government and the police have an arsenal of laws and equipment out of proportion to the threat of disorder.

Of course, it’s always been this way, baby. Our statute book and common law bristle with restrictive laws and always have done. In the volatile 1930s the state was adept at shutting down any manifestation of dissent, from Communist AGMs to humble soapbox orators. Often it just dusted down long-forgotten acts of parliament. A meeting could be broken up by a constable if he decided that a breach of the peace was likely, if it impeded other citizens or if a policeman considered that a person of “reasonable firmness and courage” might be alarmed. Thus the campaigner against unemployment was lumped together with a member of the British Union of Fascists. The fact that the neglected statute book needed to be brought down from the shelf suggests, for the optimistic at least, that willing amnesia on the part of officialdom can allow liberty to thrive.

The Death of Wat Tyler

Rare, however, is the government which possesses these liberal instincts or is scared into inaction. Taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut is an ingrained habit for those in power in this country; perhaps it goes back to 1381.

When John Wilkes was on trial the judge tried to silence his rowdy supporters. “This is not the clamour of the rabble, my lord,” Wilkes replied, “but the voice of liberty, which must be heard.” Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the two, and it has been a repeated failure of British politicians to make the effort. By taking a tough line every time something looks like getting out of hand, the state intimidates the voice of liberty as much as it prevents anarchy.

“Anti-social behaviour” is a semantic brickbat used to suggest one of the great crimes of the age. And what could be more more “anti-social” than blocking a street, picketing, closing an oil terminal, or embarrassing the government by shouting? Passivity has become a virtue. We’re encouraged to help society by popping down to the retail park and buying crap.

Protest can sometimes damage democracy. But it is also clear that protest has been crucial to the development of democracy. Protest is often people’s first and most profound involvement with politics.

Thee Faction say “on your side comrades” to the girls and boys in France. (In French, obviously).

Today’s unpopular cause is tomorrow’s political orthodoxy. Do Your Bit.

Don’t Give Up; Rise Up.

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